Why wonderkid Juan Quintero never became a superstar

The Colombian came back from childhood tragedy to become his nation’s next great prospect, but he is yet to consistently deliver on that promise

He is River Plate’s new hero, the overweight – or perhaps just bottom-heavy – mercurial playmaker plucked from European failure to achieve greatness in the Copa Libertadores. Juan Quintero has turned his fading career around in a sensational 2018, and can once again dream of making it big and following through on his obvious talent.

Quintero, still only 25, has battled adversity almost from the very start. At the age of two the Colombian’s father, Jaime, left his wife and child behind in Medellin to join the army in the hope of improving his meagre economic prospects and providing a better life for his young family.

What happened next is still shrouded in mystery. The military’s records indicate that Jaime was discharged for bad behaviour and sent on a bus back to the City of Eternal Spring. His family hold that on the return journey the 23-year-old’s vehicle was stopped by paramilitary leaders and he was forced off, ‘disappeared’ by his captors. He was never seen again.

The Quintero family has spent the last 23 years fruitlessly demanding answers over the fate of Jaime, a promising footballer in Atletico Nacional’s youth divisions before dropping out of the game when his sweetheart fell pregnant. The young Quintero was forced to grow up fast, without his father, in a Medellin blighted by the Escobar cocaine cartel that essentially ran the city in the 1990s, developing his skills under the eye of uncle and mentor Freddy who ran a local football school.

Quintero’s petite stature – at only 1.66m, he is shorter than Lionel Messi – was a further disadvantage when it came to breaking into the professional game. Nevertheless, he kept going, making a name early at famed local club Envigado (birthplace of stars like James Rodriguez, Gio Moreno and Fredy Guarin) before following his father’s footsteps and breaking through at Nacional.

A successful loan spell with Pescara while still only 19 and a starring role at the 2013 Under-20 World Cup saw Quintero become a target for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Porto swooped for his signature, and he spent the next two seasons bouncing in and out of the Portuguese side’s first team while showing regular flashes of his ability, mostly off the bench.

The youngster’s indiscipline, however, started to become a real concern. Quintero was regularly pictured in the company of reggaeton stars in the early hours of the morning, with questions asked of his commitment to the game. The final straw in Europe came during a disastrous loan spell with Rennes in 2015-16, a season in which he made just nine Ligue 1 starts and scored a solitary goal. “He is a player who is completely disorientated,” coach Rolland Curbis despaired.

“There are certain habits he must change. He thinks he is a starter but he has to show that in training.”

Better was to come during his return to Colombia with Independiente Medellin, a move interpreted as a last-ditch effort to turn around a career spiralling out of control. Quintero reacted well, netting 16 goals over the course of 2017. Still, when his loan deal was up in December precious few teams, least of all Porto, looked keen to take a chance on the playmaker, until River swooped.

His introduction to Argentine football was far from smooth. Amid reports that River had included several ‘behaviour clauses’ in his contract that banned him from nightclubs and bars, Quintero arrived at the Monumental with a different problem.

It was claimed the Colombian was carrying more than three kilos in excess weight as the 2018 season loomed, although he denied with words that would become the stuff of folklore around River: “I am not fat, I am a little short and I have a big ass.”

Overweight or otherwise, it took Quintero time to make his mark. His first goal for River did not arrive until April, and more than a few fans – not for the first time in his career – saw him as a luxury signing, adept at coming off the bench late in the game and showing off a few tricks, and not much else.

Quintero would prove all his doubters wrong. A strong end to the 2017-18 season earned him a first call-up to the Colombia squad since 2015, just in time for his second World Cup, and he was one of the Cafeteros that most impressed in a mixed campaign that ended in penalty anguish at the hands of England. Back at River he settled into a role of impact substitute, and turned the tide in the Libertadores quarter-final against Independiente with a surgically placed strike that set his team on the way to victory.

That was just a warm-up, however, for what was to come. On Sunday Boca had powered into the lead in the Libertadores final second leg, held in the incongruous setting of Madrid’s Bernabeu. Lucas Pratto sent the game into extra-time with his equaliser, and all was up for grabs with the aggregate score poised at 3-3.

Enter the Colombian. Having once more come off the bench he scored what was almost a carbon copy of his strike that sank Independiente, carving out an inch of space on the edge of the box and firing past Esteban Andrada with an unstoppable left-footed finish. Like Juan Pablo Angel, Radamel Falcao, Mario Yepes and Teo Gutierrez before him, Quintero joined an exclusive list of Cafetero wizards to enter River’s illustrious hall of fame.

“I suffered in silence, I made the effort, I worked hard,” the jubilant player said of his difficult start in Argentina after lifting the Copa. “I had a bad time, I suffered. That helped me strengthen mentally. I had to train to answer back on the field.”

Deft of touch, quick off the mark and blessed with a magical left foot, Quintero is also at his worst vapid and slothful with a habit of drifting out of games, making him an infuriating and enthralling player to coaches, team-mates and fans alike.

That lack of consistency, even after such a great 2018, means that he remains a huge gamble for any club interested in his services. With his River loan up in January and Porto keen on a sale now that his stock has risen, Tottenham and Wolves have been linked with the 25-year-old, who is also said to have received an astronomical offer worth $5 million a year to continue his career in China.

Any decision will be made at the conclusion of the Club World Cup, with the prospect of a mouthwatering clash against European champions Real Madrid the next objective for Quintero and River. One thing is clear: no matter what adversity the Colombian faces, he will not shirk the challenge.

He may not have delivered on his wonderkid promise just yet, but there is still time for Quintero to buckle down and prove that he can reproduce Sunday’s flashes of brilliance week-in, week-out at the top level.