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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

Fifa Club World Cup: Across continents, Juan Quintero's revival mirrors that of River Plate's

The Colombian playmaker's zig-zag career finally found a home in Buenos Aires to showcase his best talents. Now UAE football fans will get to see them up close

On a couple of occasions during the marathon that was the Copa Libertadores final, River Plate’s nimble, nuggety playmaker, Juan Quintero seemed determined, that if his club had been impossibly delayed in reaching Abu Dhabi and the Fifa Club World Cup, he would at least try and get the ball as near there as he could. Successive attempts from long distance to unlock a final poised nervously at 1-1 in the first half of extra time arrowed wildly high of the target, both thumped with enough power to travel across time zones.

Quintero is a persistent sort, though, and River, who finally touched down in Abu Dhabi for the tournament early Wednesday morning after their epic, cross-continental victory over eternal rivals Boca Juniors, are here thanks to the Colombian's magic wand of a left foot. His third effort from distance in a sapping final on Sunday night, some 20 yards out, went in off the Boca crossbar, with just over 10 minutes of the 120 remaining. That goal has sealed the player’s immortality in Buenos Aires.

It also rounded off a surreal 12 months for Quintero, 25. Had anybody predicted, at the start of 2018, that he would be starring in a World Cup, making the difference in the most scrutinised Copa Libertadores final ever, and coming to the Club World Cup as the lucky charm of the second-favourites, they would have been advised to set aside their fantasies. Back in January, he seemed marooned in his native Colombia, playing for Independiente in Medellin, and about to go out on his third loan deal in as many years.

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Hi parent club, Porto, had long lost faith in Quintero living up to a dazzling promise he showed as a teenager. His national team had parked hopes built around him, too. But, after joining River Plate on loan, gaining some form, he was called up, in a wild-card sort of a way, by Colombia in March to play his first senior minutes in the national jersey for three years. By June, he was taking responsibility for guiding Colombia to the knockout stages of the World Cup, scoring in the opening match and setting up goals in the two wins that rescued the Colombians from a difficult start and the setback of their principal playmaker James Rodriguez’s injury.

Quintero’s backstory is complicated, and not simply for the zig-zag career, back and forth across the Atlantic. His father disappeared, in what has been reported as a political abduction, when he was a child. As a young adult, Porto, who signed him from the Italian club Pescara as a 20 year old in 2013, developed concerns about his focus and discipline. They loaned him to Rennes, then to Independiente, and finally to River Plate, who now regard their option to buy, which they can exercise this month, as a canny piece of business.

Quintero's revival mirrors that of River Plate's. Not seven years ago, the most glamorous club of Argentina, the so-called "Millonarios" of Buenos Aires, were in the second division, a historic low, relegated and chaotic. That they have bounced back to win not one but two South American club titles since then - the first in 2015 - speaks for a resilience and for the growing reputation of Marcelo Gallardo, the manager. A former River and Argentina player, diminutive, skilful and feisty, his curating of Quintero’s mercurial talent is the latest feather in his cap.

Gallardo looked a little drained on Sunday, and he and River’s players will welcome the restful comforts of Abu Dhabi like a balm. The last seven weeks have been an unrelenting test of nerves. They reached the Libertadores final only thanks to an injury-time penalty, which swung them past Gremio of Brazil in the semi-final only on away goals. The first leg of the apocalyptic final, a suffocating, charged meeting with Boca, and a see-saw 2-2 draw, was delayed a day because of a storm; the second leg would be postponed five times in 24 hours after Boca players were injured by an assault of missiles and pepper-spray hurled at their bus en route to River’s Monumental stadium. So toxic had the match become, its deciding leg was moved to Madrid.

The saga of the fearful final may drag on, Boca having taken an argument to the international sports court, although that will be heard long after the Club World Cup, where River now take aim at another title, in the third continent they have now travelled to for their series of high-stakes contests.

“We have been through so many ups and downs,” said Gallardo, “but this will also give us momentum. Everyone has now seen the character of this club: We don’t give up.”

Updated: December 12, 2018 08:27 AM

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