If Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella was looking for the complete opposite to injured forward Sergio Agüero, he may well have found it in his decision to call up Palmeiras target man Hernán Barcos for his first ever appearance in an Albiceleste squad. ‘El Kun’ is a compact, immensely talented wonderkid who was already a star at the tender age of 15, and before leaving his teenage years European fame beckoned by way of a 20million move to Atlético Madrid.
28-year-old Barcos meanwhile is, shall we say, a little more rustic in his approach to football. The towering centre-forward provokes unavoidable comparisons to the English cult figure Peter Crouch in those who watch him tear across the football pitch; the similarities in the two, both late-bloomers who made it when most would have given up, also extend away from the grass.
Fans of the Argentine game would be forgiven if they admitted ignorance on hearing Barcos’ name for the first time. The lanky striker boasts just 17 matches in his nation’s Primera División, the last of which coming in 2008 during a loan spell at Huracán. Hernán grew up in the academy system of local giants Racing Club but barely figured in the team’s plans, despite spending five years as part of the squad.
During that time, his CV read like a globetrotter’s guide to world football: a year in Paraguay; another in Ecuador; two teams in China making him a trailblazer years before the likes of Drogba and Anelka stepped far-eastern soils; and even a spell in Serbia with fading giants Red Star Belgrade. There was one common theme throughout his wanderings, as the striker consistently recorded excellent scoring records as he played in three different continents. But none of this convinced his boyhood club, who finally agreed a permanent sale in 2010 to Liga de Quito with little fanfare.
It would be in the Ecuadorian capital that ‘El Pirata’, nicknamed due to the fact his long black hair and scruffy would allow him to easily pass as an extra in the Jack Sparrow franchise, would really start to make a name for himself. While compatriot Claudio Bieler flopped in Racing having moved the other way, Barcos was a regular scorer throughout his first season as Liga made the semi-finals of that year’s Copa Sudamericana. The coming season would be even better; 25 strikes in 51 games, including a brilliant five goals against Manta FC, and the big time finally beckoned when ‘Big Phil’ Scolari came knocking, and at the start of 2012 the forward secured to move to Sao Paulo giants Palmeiras.
The step up in level has been little trouble for the forward, who has notched 21 in 39 games so far this year despite the Verdao hovering in relegation trouble. Felipao notably challenged the Argentine on arriving in Sao Paulo to match the goals scored in 2011 in his new environment, and it has been Barcos’ tenacious will to keep live up to the test that has put him firmly in the gaze of Sabella as the Selección prepares for a World Cup qualifying double-header against Paraguay and Peru.
There is no doubt that, on talent as well as simply form, he is a worthy call-up. Like Crouch, his stature often leads observers to underestimate his more than accomplished skills on the ground (for the record, his 1.89m or 6’2” is well short of the current Stoke City destroyer, but alongside Messi, Aguero and Mascherano he is a veritable man mountain). His lanky frame and perceived lack of finesse with the ball at feet certainly did hold Barcos back in his early career in Argentina, where the equivalent of an Alan Smith long-ball idol is anathema to everything football stands for, and where even the most lumbering No. 9 has the ability to surprise you with a silky nutmeg or backheel.
That, however, is the past. ‘El Pirata’, 2012 Edition has the talent on the floor to match his towering proficiency from set-pieces and crosses. A taste of how he has imbibed the Samba culture could be seen at the weekend in an all-action performance against Santos, although the Argentine would end up on the losing side of a 2-1 defeat thanks to a couple of inspired long-range efforts from Neymar, carefully choreographed dance celebrations of course present and correct.
A mazy dribble which left four Peixe defenders in the dust was the highlight of the night for Hernán, but there were also incisive passes, constant movement and an ease going forward which must have left Sabella a very happy man on watching the highlights. The dilemma now for the ex-Estudiantes man, if he plans to put his new arrival straight into action for two games that, according to Youwin and the formbook, Argentina should win comfortably, is how to integrate Barcos’ play into a team that slowly but surely is taking on its own character.
With players like Messi and Aguero pulling the strings, you can count the number of crosses and long balls played by the Albiceleste almost on the fingers of one hand. Patient, possession play is the key for the South American side, coupled with an explosive ability on the counter attack fed by the speed and awareness of those who burst forward from deep. Barcos, meanwhile, enjoys holding the ball up, drawing the defence before playing in team-mates on the outside; accommodating him in the team would necessitate at least some reconsideration of tactics, while if Sabella is committed to sticking with just a single out and out forward, it is difficult to see how the long-haired debutant can elbow his way in front of Real Madrid star Gonzalo Higuaín and find a place in the starting line-up.
Such considerations, for the moment, are far from the mind of our Crouchesque hero as he prepares to meet up with his new companions in time for the home clash against Paraguay on 7th September. Barcos admitted that he “was still in a state of shock” after receiving the call; but it could be Argentina supporters who need to lie down when they see the lanky forward in action after so long doing the hard yards in some of football’s more obscure corners.