Marcelo Gallardo, River Plate vs Boca Juniors 1993.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons / El Gráfico
The array of talent that River Plate produced in the 1990s was absolutely phenomenal. From Ariel Ortega breaking through into the first team in 1991, through to Hernán Crespo, Pablo Aimar and finally Javier Saviola in 1998, it was a great period for the youth system of Argentina's most successful club. Also to be included amongst this decade of stars was a small attacking midfielder, nicknamed El Muñeco (the Doll), who would become one of Los Millonarios finest players of the 1990s and mid-2000s, before returning as manager and leading them to Copa Libertadores glory, just a few years after kicking his last ball for the club. His name? Marcelo Gallardo.
Born in the Merlo area of Greater Buenos Aires in the mid-1970s, Gallardo was scouted by River Plate and signed up by their academy as a twelve year-old in 1988. Having become one of the stars of their youth team, it wasn't long before he was being asked to train with the first team, and he made his debut as a seventeen year old in a Primera División match against Newell's Old Boys in the 1992-1993 season. Despite breaking into the team and then playing regularly from 1994 onwards, Gallardo had to play second fiddle to the likes of Ariel Ortega and Enzo Francescoli in that fine River Plate team of the mid-1990s, and it wasn't until Ortega left to join Valencia that Marcelo Gallardo finally came into his own as the team's playmaker. He was capable of great moments of skill and had terrific ball control, but Gallardo's finest attributes were undoubtedly his passing, vision, and intelligence on the ball. He was one of those rare players who could dictate his team's tempo, stitching all of the play together and then splitting the oposition's defence with a killer pass. It was this creativity that saw him play mainly as an attacking midfielder or occasionally a central midfielder.
Having won five Argentinian league titles and a Copa Libertadores winners medal, Gallardo moved to Europe in 1999, signing for French club Monaco. He joined a really talented side that included the likes of Fabien Barthez, Rafael Márquez, Philippe Christanval, Ludovic Giuly, David Trezeguet and Marco Simone. Gallardo formed a particularly good partnership with Giuly, the French winger combining brilliantly with the little Argentinian in his first season. And what a season it was too, free-scoring Monaco romping to the title ahead of Paris Saint-Germain, whilst Gallardo was named the Ligue 1 Player of the Year.
Having hit the heights so quickly, things then went rapidly downhill for Marcelo Gallardo and Monaco in the following seasons. Whilst Gallardo didn't have a bad season himself, the team struggled to live up to their new tag as title favourites and they failed to retain their title, finishing in a lowly 11th position that saw manager Claude Puel replaced by Didier Deschamps. Gallardo didn't seem to fit into the new manager's plans and River Plate were able to agree a deal to bring him back to El Monumental in 2003. He was soon winning titles again, as he captained the side to the 2004 Clausura. Despite his game mainly being about assists and creating chances for others, Gallardo had his best goalscoring season in 2005-06, notching a respectable 11 goals. However, Los Millonaros manager Daniel Passarella was starting to prefer Fernando Belluschi, prompting interest from both Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain to bring Gallardo back to Ligue 1. He opted for the latter and moved to the Parc des Princes at the start of 2007, now aged 31. He would only stay for another year in France though, before signing for D.C. United at the start of 2008.
The MLS was resurgent, especially after David Beckham had signed for LA Galaxy in 2007, and Gallardo was keen to experience it. Unfortunately Gallardo picked up a hernia injury and his time in Washington was limited to only 15 appearances. At the start of 2009 he returned to River Plate for the third time and had a couple more seasons at El Monumental before finishing his career over the border with Nacional, picking up a final career title in Uruguay. But his short spell in Uruguay wasn't over yet. Gallardo had already been studying to become a coach, and no sooner had he hung up his boots with Nacional than he was being offered the manager's job there. He claimed the Uruguayan Primera División in his first season in charge of Nacional before returning to River Plate in 2014, succeeding Ramón Díaz as manager. Despite not yet being able to land the Argentinian Primera División title, Gallardo has lead River Plate to two Copa Libertadores titles: in 2015 against Mexican side Tigres, and then the big one, the 2018 victory over bitter rivals Boca Juniors. As with his playing career, Gallardo looks set for big things in his coaching career, and having become one of South America's brightest young coaches, it would no surprise to see him end up managing in Europe or leading the Argentinian national team.
Great video clip of Gallardo scoring for each of his different clubs...