Unfulfilled potential. Soccer is strewn with it, the graveyards of middling players haunted by whispers of what might have been. Like the former high school quarterback, balding, overweight, and still wearing his lettered jacket down at the local watering hole where he skulls light beers, it's a sad, sad sight.
Any one of myriad variables can puncture a career, letting the air wheeze out in a huff as the wheel continues wobbling crookedly forward: money, ego, insufficient work rate, insufficient desire, drugs, injury, physical superiority gradually slipping away after an early growth spurt, and just plain bad luck.
There's also that quixotic case which eludes concrete reasoning or moralizing, mystifying player and fan alike. For instance, whatever happened to the Robinho who effervescently blazed past defenders so well that some had the gall to compare him favorably with Lionel Messi? Where has he spent the last several years, and who is this imposter cashing his checks and blithely stroking the ball in any wayward direction besides at the net?
Nery Castillo's case is similar. For one brief summer, Castillo captured lightning in a bottle, then supercharged it and electrocuted every competent defense in the Western Hemisphere. After that followed a whole lot of incognito performances hiding in plain sight on soccer fields.
Also eligible internationally for Uruguay, Greece, and Italy, Castillo picked Mexico just in time for the 2007 Gold Cup. Mexico's forward corps at the time featured an odd blend of the former, loomingly great generation (Jared Borgetti and Cuauhtemoc Blanco) and the future which never quite panned out (Castillo and Omar Bravo).
Castillo started the first match, against Cuba, and scored. Dropped against Honduras, Mexico lost. Reinstated against Panama, El Tri won and advanced to the knockout stages, where the 22-year-old Castillo lost his spot until the final, which the United States won on the strength of that Benny Feilhaber goal.
Regardless of the final's result, Castillo secured a starting role as the team transitioned into the 2007 Copa America, El Tri dropping the injured Borgetti and picking up, ahem, Luis Angel Landin. Castillo, having played in Greece since the age of 16, emerged as a veritable demi-god in that competition, sashaying through the best South America defenses. He spun Maicon and scored against Brazil. He singlehandedly humiliated Paraguay, drawing a red card for the goalkeeper while the minutes were still in single digits, scoring the penalty, and spending the rest of the match teeing up teammates with gaping chances.
In all, he scored four goals en route to a third placed finish. Shakhtar Donetsk slapped down a club record $27.5 million to buy him, partly because he was the hottest striker in the world and partly to prevent him from scoring against it, as Castillo did twice in the Champions League the year prior.
Castillo signed with the Chicago Fire last year
Then, of course, things started to go poorly, his former Midas touch now turning everything to aluminum foil. After just a year in Ukraine, Castillo paid his own loan fee to high-tail it to England, where he joined the newly reemerging Manchester City. This was before the tide of Sheik oil money drowned financial sense, back when corrupt Thai baht funded Sven Goran Eriksson's intriguing but ultimately failed venture. Cue three more unsuccessful loan spells, at, in order, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (one imagines Castillo's uni-brow furrowed in frustration, trying to pronounce it), Chicago Fire (a designated player contract cost the Fire brass a cool $2 million, which bought them eight appearances, seven shots, and zero goals) and Aris FC (a club Freddie Adu took to court just to leave).
Castillo wasn't much of a consideration for the 2011 Gold Cup roster, just like his omission from the 20101 World Cup squad hardly registered. At 26, he's been halfheartedly chasing down long-balls on lumpy pitches in the margins of the professional games for years now.
Though no one else will know what's different in his head, or why his feet shuffle more than dance now, one example may provide some insight. After seven scoreless games to begin his Shakhtar career, Castillo won a penalty in the eighth. He impetuously stripped the ball from the designated taker, and shanked his attempt. The coach substituted him immediately, and Castillo never played for Donetsk again.
Maybe, had he taken one extra calming breath before that shot, one last cooling pause, maybe it would have gone in. Maybe the incident would have been just a humorous anecdote in the midst of a wildly successful career, proof that Castillo had the sort of gumption and selfishness needed to thrive as a forward. Instead, it serves as the moment when Castillo paused at the edge of the cliff, gazed out at the blue horizon before him, and plummeted headlong into insignificance.
Young stars performing well in this year's Gold Cup (Jozy Altidore and Javier Hernandez, here's looking at you) might want to spare a thought for Nery Castillo. No matter how gifted, no matter which defenses are eviscerated, no matter how high the transfer fee involved, it takes just a moment to nudge a career head over cleats into the waters of mediocrity.