4 October ~ Just under a year ago, Juan Iturbe was the rising star of Paraguayan football, a player who was handed his international debut at the age of 16. Eleven months later, and without first-team football since March, he is stuck in limbo after FIFA ruled, in the aftermath of his messy divorce from his club Cerro Porteño, that he cannot sign for another professional club until he turns 18 in June next year.
As is the case in most stories of this ilk, it was the promise of overseas riches that acted as the catalyst for Iturbe's rapid fall from grace. Under the guidance of his agent, Marcelo Betnaza, Iturbe had seemed content to sign a professional contract with Cerro once he turned 17, replacing the developmental agreement he had signed when he joined the club as a youngster. That was, however, until former Paraguay international goalkeeper José Chilavert put the young forward's father, Juan del Carmen, in touch with the Argentina-based Mascardi Group.
They offered him €14,000 (£12,000) a month to represent his son and engineer a move to one of Europe's top clubs. In a country where the average monthly wage is closer to €140 such an offer is difficult to refuse. Cerro fought hard to retain their player, gaining a temporary court injunction preventing Iturbe from leaving for Buenos Aires with his father and Chilavert for talks with Gustavo Mascardi, but their initial attempts appeared futile when that decision was overturned on appeal. Iturbe departed for Argentina, his father's birthplace, where he joined up with the Under-20 national team squad that travelled to South Africa to act as sparring partners for the senior team at this summer's World Cup.
Upon his return it was announced that he had signed a deal with newly promoted Argentine Primera Division club Quilmes for the upcoming season. Hardly Barcelona or Inter, as had been promised, but reportedly still a marked improvement on the financial package available to him at home. Cerro, though, had not given up, and with Betnaza also in tow, appealed to FIFA to prevent Iturbe from turning out for his new club, claiming that they still owned his registration and that the transfer was therefore illegal. FIFA applied a temporary ban while they investigated, eventually ruling in Cerro's favour and banning Iturbe from playing for any other professional club until he turns 18.
And thus one of the most promising players to come out of Paraguay since Roque Santa Cruz now faces the prospect of a further eight months of inactivity at an age that is usually considered pivotal to the development of talented youth team players into potential first team regulars. FIFA seem unlikely to reverse their decision, in fact Betnaza's lawyer described their ruling as "the only measure they could have taken, considering the regulations," and therefore Iturbe's only immediate way out of exile would be to return, tail between legs, to Cerro.
For their part, Cerro have extended an olive branch to Iturbe and his family, indicating that they would be happy to see him return to the club, despite the fraught nature of his departure. "We have no animosity towards him or his family," a club spokesman told a local radio station. "The family consider themselves victims of the merchants of football."
Considering the offer put to him, it is unsurprising that Iturbe's father was seduced by the prospect of immediate riches for his family. No doubt Gustavo Mascardi offered possibilities far beyond what the family could ever have previously imagined. In hindsight, however, his decision may prove to have been foolhardy, as it is clear that his son's development has been hindered by the fallout of his acceptance. One can only hope that Iturbe can put his career back on track once he returns to action and that his story also acts as a deterrent for the parents of other young prospects blinded by the dollar signs flashed in front of them. Nick Dorrington