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Jun 29, 2014

Pinilla's career epitomised by one shot

Mauricio Pinilla rockets one off the crossbar in the 120th minute against Brazil.

Chile was 5 inches and 90 seconds away from breaking 200 million hearts on Saturday when Mauricio Pinilla shifted the ball expertly away from his marker and unleashed a shot out of Julio Cesar's reach.

For a split-second the man known as "Pinigol" looked as if he would exchange his celebrity image for the status of a legend -- La Roja's pinup boy would become their Alcides Ghiggia. It was not to be, as the woodwork denied Chile the historic opportunity to act as double giant slayer.

To pile the misery on Pinilla, his near-miss was followed up minutes later by a failed penalty attempt -- one of three that led to the country's fourth exit from a World Cup by the hand of Brazil.

In a way, that split-second seconds before the ball rattled off the bar mirrored the trajectory of the journeyman striker's career -- so much thrilling early potential unfulfilled.

- Mauricio Pinilla fight investigated by FIFA
- Sampaoli proud Chile wrote football history

Pinilla rocketed onto the scene in Chile's Primera Division with 20 goals in 2002 and 2003 for Universidad de Chile. Brimming with the confidence of youth, Pinilla banged in long-range strikes, bicycle kicks and powerful headers, endearing him to the "La U" faithful and earning him a spot in the national team at just 18 years of age.

As is often the case, however, he was plucked from the country's domestic league far too early, leaving for Inter Milan after just one season. He would never play a match for the club, failing to impress in training, and went on loan to Chievo Verona and Celta Vigo. Immature and troubled, Pinilla became prone to panic attacks on the pitch and a debauched lifestyle off it.

He was a constant fixture in Chile's tabloid pages, with money to burn and a weakness for women and partying. His raw talent kept him in the game, but his lifestyle made him a liability and he wandered throughout Europe failing to settle at half a dozen clubs including Hearts in Scotland and Racing Santander in La Liga.

Mauricio Pinilla, left, has experienced plenty of disappointment throughout his career.

Goals still came with La Roja, for whom he led scoring in qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup, although the team fell short of making the tournament. The largest scandal of his career came the following year, when Pinilla retired from international football after allegedly having an affair with the captain's wife.

When his ninth club -- Apollon Limassol in the Cypriot first division -- released him in 2009, Pinilla floated unattached on the transfer market and in the darkest days of his career. Then the call came from Grosseto in Italy's Serie B, and Pinilla grabbed the opportunity with both hands, banging in 24 goals in as many games. His dream return to Inter never materialised, although he ended his self-banishment from the national team and earned a call-up in 2010.

Chile has lacked a top-class classic centre-forward since the retirement of Marcelo Salas and the fading of Humberto Suazo's star. Jorge Sampaoli spent much of 2013 experimenting with a host of strikers and settled on Pinilla to act as his Plan B -- the tactical change should fleet-footed Eduardo Vargas fail to make an impact. It came so close to working Saturday, but as he has become painfully accustomed to, the promise of true footballing glory slipped through Pinilla's fingers.

The journeyman announced plans to leave current club Cagliari earlier this month. His next club will be his 12th in as many years.

Angus McNeice

Angus McNeice is deputy editor and chief sports writer at The Santiago Times, headquartered in the Chilean capital. He covers domestic and international club soccer in South America and has reported closely on the Chilean national team's road to Brazil 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @GusMcNeice.