Like many things it began with the Beatles. George Best’s '60s mop top coincided with the rise of the post-war celebrity footballer. Once an afterthought, a footballer’s hairdo has become an essential part of his image. Through the years we’ve seen Kevin Keegan’s bubble perm, Roberto Baggio’s divine ponytail, John Harkes' early '90s mullet, Carlos Valderrama's fro, Zidane’s bald patch, and, tragically, we’ve watched Andy Carroll and Gareth Bale resurrect the ancient tradition of the man-bun.
Yet with all the questionable styling choices, there’s still classy hair in the game. There’s still one footballer hairstyle that continues to dangle below the rest, that continues to avoid complete extinction - the rat tail. Part braid, part flyaway, for the past 10 years the rat tail has graced the neck of the one footballer dashing enough to pull it off. Yes. That’s right, it’s Rodrigo Palacio.
Under normal circumstances the rat-tail is unacceptable. When your hair style is named after a rodent’s appendage, a bit of self-reflection needs to take place. But Rodrigo Palacio is not normal circumstances. His career, like the mammal his tail is named after, continues to live on despite threats of imminent doom. And while certainly not the most heralded of Argentinian football players, Palacio has found his own way into the hearts of many an Inter supporter.
Rodrigo Palacio’s journey began as far from Milan as you could imagine. Born in Bahía Blanca a port town in the southern reaches of Buenos Aires known more for producing top basketball players than footballers (Manu Ginobili hails from the region). Palacio’s father, José Ramón Palacio, cast a large footballing shadow. The elder Palacio, a Spanish National, cemented his legacy with the Argentinian club Olimpo in the 1980s.
Rodrigo’s path to Inter Milan was a test of patience. His career started at local side Bella Vista. From there it was on to Huracán, where, in 53 appearances, Palacio would tally only 15 goals. Banfield was next, where 36 appearances only yielded 9 goals. Palacio and his rat-tail were still growing. And while showing promise, European clubs didn’t immediately beckon.
Boca Juniors, however, would at last provide him with a global stage to display his talents. At Boca, Palacio would find both personal and team glory. Playing mostly as a second striker, he would go on to ring up 51 goals in 131 appearances--his best return coming during the 2006/07 season where he hit for 19 goals in 33 appearances.
In five seasons at Boca Juniors, Palacio would become a key figure in helping them win important titles on the continent. His trophy haul would include a clausura and apertura, the Copa Sudamericana, and the most coveted of all: The Copa Libertadores. With Palacio in the attack, Boca Juniors would also finish as runners up in the 2007 FIFA Club World Cup. After scoring in the final against A.C. Milan, Palacio would take home the bronze ball award for 3rd best player in the tourney behind Seedorf and Kaka.
Europe and Inter would still wait. For nine years Palacio would toil and hone his craft in the Argentine Primera. With each passing season his hopes of a European career grew dimmer.
Despite the growing use of statistics in the modern game, a striker is still judged on a single stat - goals. Palacio wasn’t scoring enough of them.
Even in this, the Messi and Ronaldo era, where the goals seem to pour from the boots of two players who aren’t traditional number nines. One goal in every two games is the standard and Rodrigo Palacio fell well short of that most seasons. His final season at Boca Juniors saw him tuck away only 5 goals in 20 appearances. But the call from Europe finally came. Genoa Cricket and Football Club marked Palacio as an ideal replacement for another Inter bound Argentine - Diego Milito.
Genoa would prove the perfect introduction into European football for Palacio. The familiar surroundings of a port town and fellow Argentinian teammates would help the transition into Serie A. His early goal return was again short of the standard but the 2011/12 season saw him bag 19 goals in 31 games, his best goal scoring record in Europe to that point.
Palacio’s dream opportunity would finally arrive. Inter Milan would bring him to the San Siro for a mere 10.5 million Euros, a bargain as Inter would begin to cut costs and walk down some dark, trophy-less tunnels.
Palacio’s energy, attitude and yes, goals would be one of the few bright lights Inter would witness for the next 5 years, and what a light Palacio would be.
One quality of a top striker isn’t only the volume of goals, but the variety of goals. Looking back at Palacio’s goal scoring catalog, it’s difficult to not be impressed. Unless you’ve watched every Inter Milan match over the last five years a quick YouTube search will reveal the truth. Palacio’s goal scoring ability has been severely underrated.
His Inter career has seen him score goals of all types. From impossible angles to distances long and short, he finds a way to hit the back of the net.
Palacio’s highlight reel shows him shooting off the dribble with the inside of both feet. He executes side footers from inside the six yard box with poise. Cracks off instep drives from outside the eighteen. Takes half volleys off the chest and places them into the bottom corner. Palacio never scores the same goal twice.
For his diminutive stature he’s a top header of the ball as well. Scoring with glancing headers, looping headers and driving headers. Only set piece goals are missing from his Inter goal collection. No penalties or free kicks, this being a possible explanation of why he hasn’t scored more often.
Palacio however is more than goals. In this time where goal scorers point to the name on the back of their shirts and wave off teammates en route to kicking over the corner flag, Palacio celebrates like a throwback. You can’t find a goal scoring celebration where he doesn’t join his teammates or immediately recognise and thank the goal provider. It’s challenging to be all about goals and all about your team, but Palacio manages both.
However, no performance sums up Rodrigo Palacio more than that fateful December night of the 2012/13 season at the San Siro. Inter were taking on Hellas Verona in a Coppa Italia second round match.
With Inter leading 2-0 in the 76th minute Inter’s goalkeeper Luca Castellazzi injured his left shoulder popping the ball over the bar after a whipping volley from Cacia. With no remaining substitutions the squad huddled near the center circle like a team of bounty hunters. Heads down, spitting on the grass, mulling over who’s going to be the next sheriff.
Of course Rodrigo Palacio, all five-foot-nine of him made the call. He slipped on the gloves and donned the number 27 jersey from third choice keeper Vic Belec. He flashed a smile and took his place between the sticks, keeping Hellas Verona at bay for the final 10 minutes of the match.
He was called into action twice, making two saves. One a comfortable catch from a tame Armin Bačinović header and the other a scraping fingertip save with his right hand around the bar to deny Alessandro Carrozza a certain goal and preserve the clean sheet. Team first, rat-tail second. Palacio always has his priorities in order.
To think of Rodrigo Palacio as the almost man would be too simplistic. To say he didn’t score enough goals could be true. But in many ways part of Palacio's Inter career has been about survival, for both himself and the club.
For a player who didn’t make his career defining move to until age thirty he, like his rat-tail, are still hanging around. You would have thought he’d have left Inter by now. Picked up a final payday in Argentina and returned to a hero’s welcome. No one could’ve predicted he’d get another year on his Inter contract. But somehow he continues on.
As his Inter contract expires this summer this will likely be his final season in Europe. As Palacio prepares to leave the San Siro the question remains, how will Rodrigo Palacio’s Inter days be remembered?
He doesn’t have the goal scoring record of Ronaldo (the Brazilian one) or the exquisite technique of Roberto Baggio. He hasn’t won as many trophies as Diego Milito or possessed the single mindedness of Christian Vieri. But to call him a squad player would be an insult.
Rodrigo Palacio may never be considered an Inter legend. But he’ll take his place as an Inter cult hero and loyal servant. As his final days with the club approach and his influence becomes stronger in the locker room than on the pitch, Palacio's Inter career could be easy to forget. I hope the Inter faithful remember what he’s given to the club and that his legacy is longer than his rat-tail.