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Mar 8, 2012

Faustino Asprilla: All guns blazing

Faustino Asprilla is one of the finest players ever to have emerged from Colombia, a player who drew comparisons with the likes of Pele and Garrincha at his peak. Nicknamed the Octopus and described by former Italy coach Edmondo Fabbri as "extraterrestrial", this rubber-legged forward approached the game in a manner most men could not conceive.

But there were problems. He had a penchant for women, nightlife and, worst of all, firearms. "Hey, I like guns," he said in 2008 of a troublesome hobby that he has been unable to curb, and Asprilla was so predisposed to mischief-making that he even managed to turn his passion for horses into a problem when arriving for international duty nine hours late after having visited an equine show. Stories abounded from the very outset, though in the words of Kevin Keegan, who spent £6.7 million on taking him to Newcastle: "A lot of stuff was over the top. If I'd believed even a tenth of it, I'd never have signed him."

The son of a sugar cane worker, Asprilla was born into a large family in Tulua in 1969, and swiftly built up a reputation. While representing his local team in his teens, he quickly realised he was the star, and one story claims that, when he felt he had not been shown sufficient respect, he sat naked in the stands in protest.

He was talented enough to attract the attention of Cucuta Deportivo as a 17-year-old, and he announced himself to the nation when scoring two goals against Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea in a 5-0 win over Millionarios, eventually ending the campaign with 17 goals in 26 games. That was enough to persuade Colombian giants Atletico Nacional to sign him, and there he won the league title in 1991.

In April 1992, amid rumours he was facing death threats in his homeland, Parma decided to take him to Italy. He was part of the Colombian side that finished bottom of their group at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, but even then found time to be involved in five separate driving accidents over the course of that summer, providing his new club with a taste of troubles to come.

On the field, though, he impressed. He had excelled during a brief tour of Brazil at the end of the 1991-92 campaign and, while he netted only seven goals in the 1992-93 season, his stunning free-kick against AC Milan in March condemned the Rossoneri to their first defeat in 58 games. He would have played a part in Parma's 1993 Cup Winners' Cup final victory over Royal Antwerp at Wembley, too, had it not been for a scuffle in Tulua. The official line fed to the press was that the striker had gashed his calf when he trod on a bottle a home, but as he later explained to FourFourTwo: "A bus driver smashed into my car, and then when I got out of the car to get onto the bus, he shut the door on me. It was one of those security doors, so when I kicked it, my foot went through the glass but got cut as it came out. I was furious. If I'd got into the bus, I would have hit him, but he escaped."

Asprilla was an unused substitute for Parma's success that May, but he returned to fitness to help Colombia to third place in the Copa America in June and July. His international prospects dwindled in August when, told he would only be on the bench ahead of the World Cup qualifier at home to Argentina, he stormed out of the team's hotel after telling a team-mate: "Being substitute is bad for my image." The team won that game 2-1 in his absence, and Colombian FA president Juan Jose Bellini was ready to implement a lifetime ban, but Asprilla was handed a second chance after making a tearful apology, and scored a brace in the team's famous 5-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires in September.

Such was his ability that his club management were willing to excuse his excesses, too, when serious questions being raised later in the year. He was regularly out on the town and, after his wife and child returned to Colombia, La Stampa ran a much-discussed story indicating that it may have been down to a relationship with a porn star. Parma boss Nevio Scala responded by saying the players had all laughed about the story in the dressing room - "Tino just met a girl, that's all," he said.

In early 1994, Asprilla helped Parma to victory over AC Milan in the UEFA Super Cup, and then to the final of the Cup Winners' Cup for a second successive year. Asprilla was expected to cause havoc, described as an "unorthodox, bewildering speed merchant" in The Guardian preview, but was ultimately thwarted as George Graham's Arsenal stifled Parma's artistry to grind out a 1-0 victory. In the summer, he took part in USA '94, where Colombia's great promise failed to materialise as the team became paralysed by fear amid death threats that proved all too real.

Six months later, during New Year's Eve celebrations, Asprilla was involved in the most significant controversy of his playing career as he fired unlicensed firearms at a party. A few days later, El Tiempo, Colombia's most widely-read newspaper, wrote in an editorial: "Colombia undoubtedly owes much to Tino Asprilla. His dribbling and his skill have brought many unforgettable afternoons ... But prestige does not exempt him from being a good citizen. We cannot have an idol who constantly sparks scandals."

Following a lengthy investigation, the authorities finally gathered enough evidence to charge Asprilla in mid-May. That news arrived in the middle of the two-legged UEFA Cup final with Juventus - Parma had already won the first leg 1-0, and Asprilla kept his place for the second leg, which they drew 1-1.

It was an otherwise fairly disappointing season for the striker, who scored only six goals, and at the end of the campaign he blamed Scala, the coach, for his disappointing return. Parma responded by fining him $27,000, and Asprilla told the Gazzetta dello Sport in June: "I will never play for that club again." However, when a move to Leeds fell through, he licked his wounds and returned to training ahead of the 1995-96 season.

In September, he was finally given a one-year suspended prison sentence for his New Year celebrations and told to report to the Colombian consulate in Milan every month for two years. The punishment appeared to have little effect, though; in November, he was accused of hitting a man and threatening to kill him in a shop in Tulua after apparently having thought his hat had been stolen.

He remained in dispute with Parma and, when Newcastle came calling in January, Asprilla memorably arrived at St James' Park wearing a fur coat to combat a snowstorm. "I had heard of Newcastle but never seen them play," he later recalled. "There were so many people chanting my name I thought, 'Where the hell am I?' Every time I see those photographs, I just feel cold."

After completing the medical, Asprilla headed straight for the airport, and doubts soon emerged as to whether he would actually return. An on-off saga ensued before he finally completed the £6.7 million switch in early Feburary 1996, with Asprilla claiming he had "been pulled around like a child's toy in recent weeks".

He made his arrival when Newcastle, top of the table and on a run of four straight wins, were heading to the Riverside Stadium for the Tyne-Tees derby with Middlesbrough. Having only just met his team-mates and enjoyed a glass of white wine, he was surprisingly included on the bench. Even more surprisingly, he came on with 22 minutes to play. Boro - on a six-game losing run - were leading 1-0, but Asprilla provided an instant impact, setting up Steve Watson for an equaliser as Newcastle came back to win 2-1. Asprilla had not played a full game for Parma for three months, and Keegan said after the game: "From what I understood of his Spanish, afterwards he was totally knackered."

The Guardian had described Asprilla as the "ideal" player for Newcastle in the wake of that performance, but the dream turned sour more quickly than may have been expected. Newcastle lost their next game to West Ham and, in the 3-3 draw with Manchester City that followed, Asprilla was accused of elbowing and butting City defender Keith Curle, later resulting in a one-match ban and a £10,000 fine.

In March, he was dropped by Colombia for turning up nine hours late ahead of a game against Bolivia having spent the morning visiting a horse show. "Asprilla's attitude is very bad and shows a lack of discipline," Colombia boss Hernan Dario Gomez said. "I cannot allow him to behave like this." However, Colombia did once more allow his behaviour; Asprilla was reinstated for the game and scored two goals in a 4-1 victory. "I can't win," Gomez said.

Newcastle ultimately threw away the title after winning only three of the nine games that followed Asprilla's arrival, and many felt his arrival had unbalanced the team and cost the club the title. "I hadn't played for six months because I was in dispute at Parma but I was still sad," he told The Guardian the following year. "I tried my best. I never read the papers but, if people want to point the finger and if that makes everybody happy, then it's okay by me."

Keegan signed Alan Shearer ahead of the 1996-97 season, and Asprilla fell down the pecking order. In October, he told a radio station in Bogota: "I am not happy at Newcastle." The following week, he told the club his flight from Colombia to Newcastle had been cancelled, leaving his manager perplexed. "We got a fax from Bogota saying he was stranded there because the plane couldn't go, but the plane did go and he wasn't on it," Keegan said. "We don't know where he is."

An injury to Shearer offered Asprilla a reprieve, and in late October he helped the club into the third round of the UEFA Cup with two goals in a 4-0 win over Ferencvaros. When Keegan resigned in January, he was offered a clean slate under Kenny Dalglish, who said: "Tino excites me. He does things in training that you don't see anybody else do."

His new manager's encouragement was insufficient to curb Asprilla's behaviour. While representing his country in April, he was sent off for fighting with Paraguay goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert - "He spat in my face and that made me angry," Asprilla explained - while, in May, he was alleged to have butted a policeman after being ejected from a concert in Tulua. In the summer, he sent Dalglish a fax informing him he wanted to rejoin Parma.

His desired move did not come to pass, and it was in the 1997-98 campaign that he enjoyed his most memorable moment as a Newcastle player when his hat-trick gave his team a 3-2 win over Barcelona in the Champions League group stage. He established himself as an important player under Dalglish, but things fell apart by the end of the year and he was sold to Parma for £7 million in January 1998. Dalglish said at the time that Asprilla had been a popular figure in the dressing room "until recently", while two Sunday newspaper reports emerged - one claimed the striker had said the manager had "lost the plot", while another said he had wrecked an Italian restaurant in Newcastle before Christmas. Asprilla strongly denied both stories and suggested Newcastle were discrediting him: "Someone at the club with a certain malice is putting out these stories."

In the summer, he played for Colombia at the World Cup in France, but once more the players struggled to perform after receiving death threats. Asprilla was substituted late in the 1-0 defeat to Romania that opened their campaign, and afterwards complained to a radio reporter that others should have been removed instead. Manager Hernan Dario Gomez sent him home and would not allow him back, even when Asprilla apologised and Colombia president Ernesto Samper pleaded for leniency.

Colombia allowed Asprilla back into the fold after the tournament, but his powers were waning, and when he complained in February 1999 that he had been made to fly economy back to Italy after an international with Germany in Miami - "To belong to the national team is to suffer," he said - the authorities warned him in no uncertain terms to keep quiet.

He did not feature in either leg of Parma's Coppa Italia success over Fiorentina in 1999, and played only the final five minutes of the 3-0 UEFA Cup final victory over Marseille. Later in May, back in Colombia, a drunken Asprilla fired seven shots into the air with a 9mm pistol at the Las Américas Beach Resort in Cartagena. When it emerged he was set to be included in the squad for the 1999 Copa America, a poll in the country revealed a majority of Colombians opposed his involvement. He was not selected in the end, and spent the summer busying himself with a war of words with Oscar Cordoba, during which he suggested the goalkeeper was gay.

In July, he was transferred to Brazilian side Palmeiras, bringing some flair to an otherwise efficient side, and in November attempted to reposition himself as an intellectual during an interview with Elocio magazine. "Did you know that it's mainly Hitler's fault that Wagner and Nietzsche have been demonised so much in the West?" he asked, while describing the composer and philosopher as his idols.

His efforts on the field were being hampered by injury, and in 2000 he went to Fluminense, where he had an impressive strike-rate but managed only 12 games. He moved on to Atlante in Mexico, but was again restricted by injury. He agreed to join Darlington in the English Third Division in August 2002 and was even paraded before the fans, but he twice failed to show up for a medical and eventually returned to Colombian side Atletico Nacional. "What Darlington offered me was very good but it wasn't enough to live on here," Asprilla explained of a contract worth a reported £17,000 a week.

It was a familiar story on his return to Colombia - he lasted a year, making limited appearances - before moving on to Universidad de Chile in 2003. The physio apparently asked Asprilla how he was able to play given the ruinous state of his knee, but he managed 13 games and five goals. He also managed to spark more gun controversy. "I turned up to training with a gun - the kind they use in the films," he told FourFourTwo. "I told the players that if they didn't run I'd shoot them. A journalist was watching and said I was going to shoot everyone ... scandal! But the other players and the coach got the joke." When he signed up for Argentinean giants Estudiantes to play under Carlos Bilardo later in the year, his injuries restricted him to just two appearances, and it was clear his time was up.

He has remained unpredictable in his retirement, making appearances on Colombian reality TV shows Desafío and Nómadas in 2005, placed under house arrest in 2008 after he was accused of firing a machine gun at security forces near his farm, and pulling on his boots one last time for a farewell appearance in Medellin in 2009.

Ever the individualist, Asprilla's career could not match the inflated expectations inspired by comparisons with Pele and co. As he said at the time, though: "It's encouraging to be compared to the greats, but I am Faustino Asprilla."

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