Nery Castillo

The Manchester City flop was coveted by United as a teenager and was a star in Greece. Dan Brennan diagnoses an ego problem

For the second year running, the January transfer window will see striker Nery Castillo make his exit quietly through the back door. For a player once coveted by Chelsea, Juventus and Manchester United, and fought over by three national federations, ignominious endings are becoming the norm. 

Castillo arrived at Eastlands in January 2008 with a big reputation, but in 12 months he barely emerged from the shadows. He will instead probably be remembered as the player who, literally, couldn’t buy a game for Manchester City. So great was his desperation to escape from Shakhtar Donetsk – who had made him their record signing six months earlier – that he agreed to subsidise the loan fee paid by City to the Ukrainians out of his own pocket.

Fans of his new club would doubtless have been impressed by such a rare act of commitment. Sven-Göran Eriksson certainly was. “He was desperate to come to us, desperate to come to England, desperate to come to the Premier League,” said Sven, after Castillo offered to pay half the ­€5 million (£3.5m) loan fee.

There was much on Castillo’s CV to be excited by. He first came on to the radar of top clubs eight years ago, as a 16-year-old with Uruguayan club Danubio. In fact, had it not been for Home Office red tape, he would have arrived in Manchester way back in 2000. Alex Ferguson wanted to bring the teenage Castillo to Old Trafford but he couldn’t get a work permit.

Instead he headed off to Greece. During his seven years at Olympiakos, Castillo shone as he helped them to win three league titles, acquired cult status and won the admiration of the local federation, who tried to persuade him to adopt Greek nationality. They faced competition from Mexico as well as Uruguay. In a typical act of capriciousness, Castillo kept all three waiting for three years before finally committing to Mexico.

It proved worth the wait. He was one of the stars of the 2007 Copa América, helping Mexico to the semi-finals with his electric pace, sumptuous dribbling skills and a contribution of four goals. The pick of the bunch was a spectacular solo effort in a 2‑0 win over Brazil. That was enough to convince Rinat Akhmetov, Shakhtar Donetsk’s billionaire owner, to fork out a whopping £14m for his services.

The plan was that he would become a dazzling foil for Shakhtar’s other marquee signing, Cristiano Lucarelli, who had been lured from Livorno and Serie A for £6m. However, it took only a matter of weeks for things to turn sour. In an embarrassing home draw against bottom-of-the-table Neftyanik, Castillo was the main culprit, missing an early penalty that he wasn’t even meant to take. After Lucarelli was fouled, Castillo grabbed the ball and refused to hand it to the Italian, who was the nominated penalty taker. After he then fired a lame shot straight at the Neftyanik keeper, Shakhtar’s coach Mircea Lucescu was barely able to contain his rage. “What Castillo did, from a professional point of view… I’ve never seen anything like it before in my whole career,” he fumed. “To refuse to hand over the ball to the player who was meant to take the penalty and to take the kick himself, that is simply inexplicable… He showed yet again that he doesn’t want to play here and that nothing interests him.”

Perhaps Sven should have done a little more due diligence about his temperament. The Shakhtar penalty fiasco stirred echoes of an incident at Olympiakos, in the final game of the 2005-06 season. Believing – mistakenly as it turned out – that he was about to sign for a big European club and that this would be his farewell appearance for the Greeks, he was determined to steal the show. When one of his team-mates was about to take a free-kick, Castillo charged forward and gazumped him.

This time, at least, he scored, but there was little by way of collective celebration. Not that Castillo seemed too bothered. Instead, he ran over to Gate 7 – home of one of Olympiakos’s ultra groups, who had appointed themselves as his personal fan club – and threw his shirt into the crowd. It was an incident that summed up the problems with a player whose ego has always got in the way of his progress.

 Unable to impress the laid-back Eriksson, Castillo was never likely to stand a chance under the Swede’s successor, Mark Hughes, who made it clear months ago that he would offload him at the first opportunity. He remains on the books at Shakhtar, on a long-term contract. But it is safe to say that neither party envisages a return to Ukraine. The list of possible alternatives is no longer as glamorous as it was. At the time of going to press he was hoping to secure a move to a Mexican club. At least that would give him another chance to show Sven – now head coach of Mexico – that he really does has something to offer.

From WSC 263 January 2009