Dan Brennan wonders whether a Columbian who spiced up Tyneside but is still looking for will ever return to England, either to play football or open a nightclub
Tino Asprilla will long be remembered by Newcastle fans, not least for a dazzling hat-trick against Barcelona in their team’s first Champions League campaign, counterpointed by one of the most spectacular fouls ever seen in these parts – an elbow-headbutt combination against Keith Curle in a match with Manchester City. In two years on Tyneside, the gun-toting, pornstar-fancying, moped-riding, poodle-loving Colombian also spiced things up off the pitch. But in 1998, his off-the-wall antics finally proved too much for Kenny Dalglish and he was sent back to Parma for £6.5 million – £1m less than Kevin Keegan had paid for him.
When, last summer, he resurfaced briefly in the north-east in the company of Darlington’s ex-con chairman George Reynolds, eyebrows were raised. Reynolds claimed his “good friend” had promised to sign for the Third Division side. It seemed preposterous, but the sceptics bit their tongues when the two were photographed on the pitch of the magnificently named Reynolds Arena, with Tino clutching a Darlo shirt bearing his name. When he then didn’t sign, Reynolds accused the Colombian of double-crossing him, claiming he had offered £17,000 per week, plus a share of gate receipts if crowds exceeded 4,000.
According to Tino, though, the offer was considerably less – just £1,000 a week. He says he flew in at Reynolds’ invitation without knowing anything about the club or its chairman, but was keen to return to England and had been promised an exciting package. The Reynolds offer, he says, was not even enough to cover his expenses on a good night on the town.
Whatever the financial package on offer, it would be unfair to accuse Asprilla of being your standard footballing bread-head. He spent the last season playing for Universidad Catolica in the Chilean first division and on a whim decided to give away his entire salary – an estimated $500,000 (£350,000) – to charity. A close friend of the player says it was a typically generous gesture and adds: “The problem with Darlington was not so much that he was being greedy. He felt he had been conned and was furious about it.”
Asprilla has retained a novel approach to bonding with team-mates. On one occasion he turned up at the training ground with his gun, which he started firing off with some gusto. “I was just trying to lighten up the mood,” he shrugged. It was unorthodox, but it seemed to work and Universidad gave him a glowing write-up. According to club president Rene Orozco: “Asprilla helped save our season. He transformed the atmosphere in our dressing room and really turned things round on the pitch.”
His sojourn in Chile was just the latest in a tour of Latin American leagues which has taken in Mexico, Brazil and his native Colombia. For the moment, Tino, now 33, is “resting” – dividing his time between Bogotá’s salsa clubs and his other main passions, shark fishing and shooting trips on his ranch. He hasn’t, however, given up hope of a move back to Britain.
He believes he still has something to give and few would question his talent, but his eccentricity makes him too rich for most managers’ blood. He did, briefly, appear to have found a possible patron in Dundee’s new director and benefactor, Giovanni di Stefano. However, manager Jim Duffy, perhaps keen to keep Dens Park a gun-free zone, quickly scuppered the idea.
He baulked at a lucrative offer to join the football bandwagon in Qatar, saying it would be too hot and that he felt it would not be compatible with his “lifestyle”. A move to Russia – to strugglers Torpedo Metallurg – was also on the cards for a while. In some ways it would have been a home from home – the Russian premier league is now overrun with B-list Latinos in exile. And Torpedo had already demonstrated a keen eye for PR earlier this year when they sought to lure another former Tyneside idol, Paul Gascoigne, with “competitive wages, a personal female interpreter and free beer”, before losing out to the apparently greater allure of the Chinese second division. The mind boggles at what sort of bespoke package Torpedo had in mind for Asprilla. The player seemed tickled by the idea, until he made a few inquiries and discovered that it would mean enduring winter temperatures that would make the Bigg Market in mid-December seem like Club Tropicana.
Those curious to discover what a good night on the town à la Asprilla entails may soon get the chance to find out. The Colombian retains his affection for Newcastle and wants to open a salsa bar in the city centre. He still has many friends in the north-east, but it is safe to say that the George Reynolds won’t be on the guest list for opening night.
From WSC 201 November 2003. What was happening this month