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 By Tim Vickery

Quintero to relight spark of once promising career with Medellin in Copa

Juan Fernando Quintero was once hailed as the future of Colombian football. He may still be.

There are not too many stars from the 2014 World Cup in action in the 2017 Copa Libertadores. True, Brazil's much-maligned centre-forward Fred is still banging in the goals for Atletico Mineiro, where Ecuador centre-back Frickson Erazo is recovering from injury. A compatriot of his, once of Major League Soccer, Oswaldo Minda is a substitute for Barcelona of Guayaquil. And a trio of Uruguayan players have returned home to round out their careers: defenders Jorge Fucile and Alvaro Gonzalez with Nacional and attacking midfielder Cristian Rodriguez with Penarol.

And then, there is Juan Fernando Quintero.

The little Colombia international was at one time hailed as the future of his country's football. He may still be. Quintero is only 24, but somewhere along the line things went wrong for him. If he is to get back on track, then his current loan spell back home with Medellin will be fundamental.

Quintero was outstanding in the 2013 Under-20 World Cup, which came to no surprise to those who had followed him on the way up. From Envigado on the edge of Medellin to Atletico Nacional, the city's giants, his ability was always breathtaking. He led an otherwise ordinary Colombian Under-20 side to the South American title in 2013, by which time he had already moved to Pescara of Italy.

Observers in Turkey for that Under-20 World Cup were astonished, though comparisons with Lionel Messi were a little unfair. Both are short, left-footed players with a low centre of gravity, but Messi, of course, runs with the ball tied to his foot. Quintero does not have the same dribbling skills or turn of pace, but he has a set of golf clubs in his left foot and a fine strategic brain for setting up the play.

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He was fast tracked into the senior Colombia squad and at age 21, he made an impact at the World Cup, coming off the bench to score what turned out to be the winning goal against Ivory Coast in the game that ensured Colombia's qualification from the group for the first time since 1990. The side went on to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in the country's history. For coach Jose Pekerman, it represented the moment when Colombia took a definitive place at football's top table. Few doubted that Quintero would be a fundamental part of this process of consolidation.

But, another difference from Messi, Quintero found focus hard to maintain. Top-level football is about much more than talent. It requires the remorseless pursuit of excellence that Messi has made his hallmark, which can be a draining way to live. By now, Quintero had moved to Porto, who surely imagined he would be as successful for them, both on the field and financially, as his compatriot James Rodriguez. But Quintero lost the drive to excel. He put on weight and there were even rumours that he was going to give up the game and instead devote himself to music.

A loan move to Rennes in France failed to shake him up. This year's hope is that being loaned back home to Independiente Medellin will relight the spark.

So far, things have gone so well that European clubs are already thinking of bringing Quintero back. He has been scoring goals and setting them up, but he missed a few weeks through injury and his absence did nothing to improve his club's situation in the Libertadores.

Quintero played in the opening match, scoring a penalty that was too little and too late to save the team from a 3-1 defeat at home to River Plate of Argentina. He was missing for the next game, a 1-0 defeat away to Emelec of Ecuador, which left the team in a desperate situation.

Last week, Quintero was the man of the match, pulling the midfield strings as Medellin won 2-0 at home to Melgar of Peru. This Wednesday they are away to the same opponents in a match where a draw would be a slight disappointment and a defeat would be a disaster.

The pressure is on, then. A genuine class act in a competition where top-class quality is these days thin on the ground, Quintero will be expected to play to something close to his extraordinary potential if his Medellin are to make progress in the Libertadores.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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