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Giovanni Hernandez - from mediocre to maestro

Tim Vickery's Articles (Bot)
Aug 1, 2010
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There is no doubt about my favourite performance so far in this year's Copa Libertadores. It is that of veteran Colombian playmaker Giovanni 'The Prince' Hernandez for Junior Barranquilla against Gremio of Brazil.

The 34-year-old may have run out of puff in the second half, while Gremio tightened up their marking, but Hernandez took control, giving an exhibition of old style number 10 play after the Colombian side had gone behind to an early goal.

Out came his favourite tricks - the 'look one way, give the pass the other' ball, the tight-angled short passes, the probing long balls that split the opposing defence.

One minute he was dropping deep to find space and orchestrate the play, the next he was popping up in wide spaces high up the field - from where he scored Junior's equaliser.

Hernandez has played 35 matches for Colombia, scoring five times Hernandez was not involved in Junior's second-half winner as, for the second consecutive week, Jhon Viafara, once of Portsmouth and Southampton, weighed in with an important goal. Nevertheless, 'The Prince' was the key figure in the first defeat suffered by a Brazilian team in this year's Libertadores.

In the days leading up to the game, Hernandez was talking up Gremio and their virtues - and from the opening minute it was clear that he was fully motivated for this game.

He had not been as influential the previous week against provincial Peruvian side Leon de Huanuco. But Gremio would provide him with a worthy platform, a soap box from which to shout out a reminder of his special talents.

The chances are that many readers will not know who Hernandez is - but it was not supposed to be that way. He was once seen as heir to the throne of Carlos Valderrama, the frizzy-haired playmaker who helped put Colombian football on the map in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Hernandez very nearly joined Valderrama in the 1998 World Cup squad but, after selecting him for a friendly before the tournament, the management staff decided he was not yet ready. They believed his time would come later. And as the Valderrama generation made their exit, Hernandez would help take Colombia to future World Cups.

But it hasn't happened.

Hernandez was in the team that won the Copa America on home ground in 2001 and was playing for his country as recently as last November. He has enjoyed some good moments with the national team but not enough of them. He has been in and out of the team, unable to impose himself consistently at the highest level.

Hernandez's club career has been a similar story. He did well in Argentina with Colon de Santa Fe and was frequently linked with Boca Juniors, although a move to the big boys never came off.

He won titles in Chile with Colo Colo but Europe never called either and Hernandez has spent most of his time in Colombia, where the clubs are much poorer and the standard of football lower.

Hernandez has not hit the heights that many expected when he first made his name in the mid 90s.

And that is why I found his performance against Gremio so fascinating. He picked his moment to make The Prince's Speech, a declaration to the effect that he may have suffered a stuttering career but that, on his day, he is still worthy of an award or two.

There is a question I always think about putting to Hernandez and players in a similar situation. I have never done it because, to be perfectly honest, it is a question I have always been too scared to ask.

How do you cope when it sinks in that you are not going to achieve all those things in the game which once seemed yours almost by right?

When you have been brought up with expectations of greatness and have even been able to grasp it on occasions, how do you cope with mediocrity?

There is no shortage of candidates for such a question in South America. The continent is forever turning out wonderkids. Clearly, not all of them are going to become wonder-adults.

There are a couple of examples in the Gremio side beaten last Thursday by Giovanni Hernandez and Junior.

Fabio Rochemback is in good form in the Gremio midfield, filling one of the holding roles.

A decade ago, though, he was entitled to believe that he was destined for higher things. Still a teenager, he was playing for Brazil and signed by Barcelona. He looked on the road to becoming a dynamic midfield force, bursting forward to score decisive goals in the World Cup and the Champions League.

Somewhere along the line those dreams faded. He has enjoyed a perfectly respectable career. But Sporting Lisbon, Middlesbrough and back to Brazil to be a useful club player before the age of 30 - this was surely not part of the script in 2001.

A recently acquired team-mate provides an even more graphic illustration of the phenomenon. Eight years ago, this column noted the promise of Fluminense starlet Carlos Alberto. Eighteen months later, and still only 19, he was scoring in a Champions League final for Porto. The world was at his feet.

And Carlos Alberto has kicked it away. He must be the worst signing in the history of Werder Bremen - he suffered from insomnia and was soon loaned back to Brazil.

Back home, he helped Corinthians to the domestic title in 2005 but was subsequently patchy for Sao Paulo, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama. Indeed, he was hounded out of the latter after some disastrous results in January, landing on his feet at Gremio where his old admirer Renato Gaucho is coach.

That admiration might have taken a knock after Thursday. Given more defensive responsibilities than usual, Carlos Alberto was taken off after 35 minutes, both to save him from a red card and to stop the team from being overrun.

Perhaps Carlos Alberto can take inspiration from the performance of the opposing number 10, Giovanni Hernandez.

For a variety of reasons, a player's achievements may fall short of potential. But if the talent is there, days can still come along when it shines brightly, days that help make up for the disappointments.

Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to [email protected], and I'll pick out a couple for next week.

Q) Since Jose Pekerman and his disciples relinquished control of Argentina's youth set-up, there has been an alarming dip in quality. Do you think the situation is recoverable, or has all of Pekerman's hard-work been flushed down the proverbial toilet?
Toby Millard

A) Argentina certainly haven't been impressive in the last two South American Under-20 Championships, since the end of the era of Pekerman and his disciples. There may well be mitigating circumstances, though.

First, even under the Pekerman gang the team tended to be better at the World Youth Cup than in qualifying - there are problems having players released for the South American Under-20s, as happened this time with Lamela of River Plate.

So we should hope for better things from Argentina in the World Youth Cup this July/August.

Secondly, from a position of strength after winning the last Olympics, Sergio Batista handed out a warning for the future, saying that the standard of players of players coming through the system was in decline, with lots of battlers but fewer players of talent. His words seem to have been borne out.