If there was a Mexican version of Freddy Adu, it would be Nery Castillo.
All right, calm down everyone. Admittedly it’s a somewhat uneven comparison, but the similarities are too alluring to overlook: the shining youth career and precocious talent that prematurely enamored a whole soccer nation; the irrational fear of losing that precocious talent to another national team; the often tempestuous, prickly attitude; the underachievement and disappointment of the mid-term, close to finished product.
It’s all there. Including the hope that, one day, each could still be the difference maker on his respective national team.
Now, akin to Adu’s return to the U.S. after a long, multi-stop tour of Europe, Castillo has come to Mexico (not returned, really, given Castillo’s international playing history) to try to make his name in the domestic league and regain the form that once had him pegged as the next big thing in Mexican soccer.
At 28, this may be Castillo’s last chance to make his way back into a Mexican national team that was once so eager to have him.
Of course it all started so differently for the son of a Uruguayan soccer player who, some would say fortunately for Mexico, was playing his club soccer in San Luis Potosi when Nery was born. Having moved to Uruguay at two, by the age of ten Castillo was a standout in the Uruguayan youth ranks, and not too long after saw demand from top clubs in Europe.
Having moved to Greece as a teenager - and this is the important part where Castillo’s story differs from Adu’s - the Mexican actually achieved some impressive levels of success in European soccer. For an eight-year spell beginning in 2000, Castillo was a key part of an Olympiacos team that won seven of eight league titles and two cups.
That pedigree naturally caught the attention of the national team - and not just Mexico’s. It’s also where Castillo’s problems seem to have really begun. Rather than simply choose the team to which he felt an affiliation, Castillo and his father purportedly lent themselves to some shady dealings, appearing to attempt to sell the player’s services to the highest bidder among Italy, Uruguay, Greece and Mexico.
It ended well enough for Mexico when Castillo finally committed to El Tri - for free - and went on to have a sparkling summer at Copa America and the Gold Cup in 2007. But the hints of his abrasive personality and lack of commitment to the Mexican shirt were starting to show.
It wasn’t just a lack of commitment to the national team, though, it turns out. In another terrible management decision, Castillo decided on a 20-million euro transfer to Shaktar Donetsk, when other large teams that might have been better fits were also after him. The move to Ukraine flopped harder than Cristiano Ronaldo, and a series of loans to increasingly less compelling places saw an uninterested Castillo fail to get playing time in situations that he repeatedly treated as beneath his star caliber.
On a brief tour through Chicago in 2010, Castillo showed up out of shape and couldn’t even make an impact in MLS before being shipped back to Ukraine. He had finally regained some of his form on escaping back to the Greek league last year, but the bristly attitude kept him marginalized and eventually earned him a one way ticket out.
Then, of course, there was the famous incident with the Mexican press which ended with Castillo declaring, condescendingly, that he was headed back to Europe while the press (and the rest of the Mexican population, at that) would have to stay in Mexico. Hardly a way to endear oneself to a nation that had already put up with plenty.
Even if he was provoked, that statement pretty clearly represents the general attitude of a player with an unearned superiority complex when it comes to Mexican football. Now, ironically, soccer in Mexico could be his last chance at resurrecting a flagging career.
New Pachuca coach Hugo Sanchez, the very man who finally convinced Castillo to play for El Tri back in 2007, is just about the last person left with faith. Hugol has been wrong many, many times before, but the environment he’s creating in Pachuca may just be the ideal one for Castillo’s talent to finally blossom fully.
Chances are higher, though, that it will all blow up in Hidalgo. Much depends on Castillo toning down the entitled, superstar attitude he’s carried with him for a decade. Here’s betting that coming home to Mexico won’t change that much. Either way, it will be interesting to watch.