Long Reads

Pablo Aimar – Not the next Maradona. The first Aimar!

In January 2001, having established a reputation in his native Argentina as a potential world star, Pablo Aimar left River Plate, and travelled across the Atlantic to join Valencia. Like so many young ‘number tens’ to emerge from that country, the young Aimar, then just 20 years old, also had to carry the burden of being labelled ‘the new Maradona.’ Els Taronges sent a club record payment of €24 million in the other direction, but for both player and club, the future was bright and, in La Liga, at least for a while, the future would be orange. 

In the coach’s chair as Aimar arrived, sat fellow Argentine Héctor Cúper, and he quickly sought to integrate his new asset into the team. For any winter arrivals at a club, forcing their way into an established team set up is a difficult enough task, but from that time until the end of the season, Aimar quickly became a key feature of the Valencia team as they fought their way to the final of the Champions League in Milan. The combination offered by the little playmaker of mercurial quality and a work ethic often lacking in players of that ilk, quickly impressed coaching staff, team-mates and fans alike, and made him an almost automatic first team selection. 

His club would lose out in a penalty shootout in that final, but it’s worth saying that when Aimar was compelled to leave the field with an injury just after the break, Valencia were leading and, five minutes afterwards, Stefan Effenberg levelled the scores. It was the Spanish club’s second successive Champions League Final defeat, having succumbed to Real Madrid 3-0 twelve months earlier, and brought Cúper’s reign to an end, as he moved on to Inter Milan. For Valencia though, the change ushered in probably the greatest period in the club’s history as Rafa Benítez replaced the Argentine, and fully ignited the brilliance of Pablo Aimar. 

If Cúper’s tenure had taken the club to the brink of success, Benítez would get them past that ’nearly men’ tag, and on to lift silverware, and the key to the success would be Pablo Aimar. Linking the maestro in midfield with David Albelda and Rubén Baraja was a masterstroke and allowed Aimar the freedom to display his full panoply of skills. Understandably called ‘the wizard’ by some fans, others preferred ‘the clown’ as an epithet. This was not in any way disparaging however, it reflected the entertainment that he offered with his tricks and flicks, without diminishing the effectiveness of his play. He was never the prolific goalscorer though. In his entire Valencia career, covering more than 200 games across all competitions, he would score only 34 goals. It was his creative play that made him so important to the team. Pablo Aimar was the alchemist, mixing up the ingredients that produced the magical potion of goals for others. Candles that burn brightly though, often also burn only briefly, and so it was with Aimar’s magical time with Valencia. While at the height of his powers however, he would take the club to unheralded heights. 

In Benítez’s first season at the club, with Aimar revelling in the freedom offered by his coach deploying him in free number ten role with a team built to exploit his talents, the Argentine pulled the strings and the more-than-willing puppets danced to his tune. The ploy played out magnificently, as Valencia secured the La Liga title, cantering to success with runners-up Deportivo La Coruña a full seven points adrift. 

Although it was Valencia’s fifth title success, it was also their first for some forty years, and few doubted that much of the credit should go to the little Argentine magician. The wait for Valencia’s next league success would not take four decades. After falling back to fifth place the following term – conversely when Aimar recorded his most prolific season with the club – another league title followed in the 2003-04 season. This time finishing five points clear of Barcelona. The UEFA Cup was also added in the same season as Valencia defeated Marseille 2-0 in Gothenburg.

Valencia also won the UEFA Super Cup and Supercopa de Espana as the new season got underway, but it was to be Aimar’s last at Mestalla. Strangely, the time of such unparalleled success also became the herald of its demise. Following the victory in Sweden, Benítez advised the club on the players he wanted to add to the squad for the coming term. As is so often the case, aspiration and realisation turned out to be far apart. In typically flowery language, Benítez summarised the difference as being that, “I asked for a sofa and they bought me a lamp.” Sadly, for the fans at the Mestalla, all that lamp did was to illuminate the way for their coach to travel to Merseyside. The players, especially Aimar, were still there, but the spell had been broken, and the new manager would not be able to conjure up any kind of similar success.

Claudio Ranieri was selected to replace Benítez, but if the Spaniard was the right coach, at the right time for Aimar, Ranieri clearly did not fit the same bill. Seemingly lacking confidence in the flamboyant talents of the player that had been key to the club’s success over the previous few seasons, Ranieri switched Aimar around positionally, and often left him on the bench. Form slumped for both player and the team in general, and injuries bit into the Argentine’s availability to play. A club that had been so successful, suddenly became a pale shade of their former glories, and their Argentine alchemist, his confidence eroded by the lack of his coach’s faith, faded. 

Following a successful manager can often be a difficult task and that certainly proved to be the case on this occasion. After a single season, Ranieri was gone. It was little consolation to Aimar, as he too left the club, moving to Real Zaragoza in a transfer that could only be interpreted as both a step down and a desperate attempt to reignite a career stalled by a coach who failed to recognise his worth. 

Further moves followed, firstly to Benfica, where a Primeira Liga title and four Taça da Liga: triumphs brought a renaissance of sorts, without ever really suggesting a recapturing of an ability now apparently blunted beyond recall. A visit to Malaysia with Johor Darul Ta’zim was as short as it was unsuccessful before a return to his native country in 2005 first with River plate and then home town club Estudiantes Río Cuarto saw his career drift into obscurity without hardly playing.  

At the height of his powers with Valencia, no less a star than Lionel Messi would describe Pablo Aimar as the player he looked up to as a boy, and Maradona would say that he was the only player he would willingly pay to watch. That his time at the top was so short however perhaps illustrates that often, almost regardless of any seemingly boundless talent, a player can only truly flourish in an environment where he is valued. 

Some may say that the career of Pablo Aimar was overall disappointing, with a brief spell of success. Such criticism is harsh though. Very few players reach the heights of success and acclaim that he enjoyed in Valencia, and while very few would argue that he lived up to that unwanted tag of being the ‘new Maradona,’ fans at the Mestalla will always fondly remember the time that the first Aimar took their club to success.