Ex-Hearts man Pinilla has World Cup in sights

Mauricio Pinilla, formerly of Hearts, celebrates a goal for Cagliari. Picture: Getty
Mauricio Pinilla, formerly of Hearts, celebrates a goal for Cagliari. Picture: Getty
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THE former Hearts striker has put his troubles behind him and hopes for World Cup odyssey with Chile

MAURICIO Pinilla has come a long way since those dark days with Hearts. The troubled Chilean striker had such a torrid time at Tynecastle – with issues ranging from depression to blackmail and a Santiago sex scandal – that you wondered if he even had a future in the game, never mind a career that would culminate in an appearance at the World Cup finals.

When the Chile squad for Brazil is announced tomorrow, Pinilla is expected to be in it, which will be a long-awaited thrill for the 30-year-old Cagliari player. Only once since he scored on his international debut 11 years ago has his country gone so far in the competition, and that was in 2010, when he was still counting the cost of two controversial years with the Edinburgh club.

A hotel-room tryst with the Chile captain’s wife, a nightclub brawl in Santiago and a ban from the national side that turned into a three-year exile were the headline-grabbing highlights of a Hearts career that never got started. Between joining them on loan from Sporting Lisbon in 2006 and leaving them in 2008, he made just eight appearances, four as a substitute.

While Pinilla’s mental problems, chaotic lifestyle and limited contribution to the team epitomised all that was wrong with Hearts under Vladimir Romanov, there was a degree of sympathy for the Santiago-born forward. He was a little different to the other foreign players who were paid too much for doing too little.

“I got on well enough with him,” says Michael Stewart, a Hearts midfielder at the time. “I’m pretty sure that some in the dressing room resented the fact that he wasn’t contributing, but I found him to be a decent bloke. There were others there who weren’t very good footballers in the first place. It was quite clear he had ability. It’s just that it wasn’t ever going to work at Hearts. His head was elsewhere. He had issues.”

Pinilla had the potential to perform at a much higher level, but there were just fleeting glimpses of it at Tynecastle, as there were in Italy, Portugal, Spain and everywhere else that he led his nomadic, injury-hit existence. Only in recent years, for Grosseto, Palermo and Cagliari, has he fulfilled the promise shown as a teenager.

He scored 20 goals in 39 games for his first club, Universidad, persuading Internazionale to pay £2 million for him in 2003, but comparisons with Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamarano, Chilean stars of the 1998 World Cup, were short lived. He never played for Inter. He went on loan to Chievo and Celta Vigo, moved to Portugal, then went on loan again, to Racing Santander and eventually Hearts.

Valdas Ivanauskas was the manager when Pinilla arrived at the start of the 2006-07 season. One of the many mysteries surrounding him was his contract. Who owned him? Sporting bought 50 per cent of his playing rights from Inter, which were in turn bought by Hearts after a season on loan. “I’m not even sure Mauricio knew the ins and outs of what the deal was,” says Stewart.

In his first two months at the club, he made six appearances, including a scoring league debut against Inverness Caledonian Thistle and a match at Pittodrie in which he contrived to provide a goal, an assist and a sending-off, courtesy of two yellow cards, one for celebrating, the other for kicking the ball away.

It was a complete striker’s performance, one that fuelled frustration with his subsequent absence. “He wasn’t world class, but he was a top player,” says Stewart. “On the few occasions when he was at it, you saw his full potential. His movement was very good, his upper body was deceptively strong and he could really strike a ball.”

Pinilla, though, was prone to injury, one of which halted his season almost as soon as it had begun. On the face of it, a calf problem should not have been too problematic, but in the new year, he was in such need of rehabilitation that he was sent home to Chile, where he played again for Universidad.

This was where Pinilla lost it, on and off the pitch. Caught in a hotel room with Maria Jose Lopez, wife of Luis Jimenez, the Chile captain, he was accused of breaking up the Posh and Becks of Chilean society. It was a national scandal, followed by a nightclub incident in which he was taken to hospital with head and neck injuries, the result of three blows with a blunt instrument. There was also a drunken television appearance and a bizarre blackmail attempt in which someone threatened to go public with footage of him singing karaoke in the nude. “We are tired of disciplining Pinilla,” said Jorge Socias, the Universidad coach. “We have given him many chances, but it’s impossible now. I think he wants to finish with football, and that’s a shame.”

Romanov, though, had not given up on him. After all, the Russian-born Lithuanian was a regular visitor to Santiago where, as Pinilla later revealed to Stewart, the two of them got up to all sorts of nocturnal “shenanigans”.

By the end of the summer, Pinilla was back at Tynecastle, this time with a wrist injury. He made two substitute appearances – against Dundee United in October, and Hibs in November – before knee ligament damage sustained at the turn of the year ended his season.

Worse still, it emerged that Pinilla had been suffering from depression. Romanov went to great and expensive lengths to address the issue, paying for him to undergo rehab in a private Lithuanian clinic and sending him to Marbella for a holiday. As well as dance classes in which Romanov also took part, there was boxing, psychology and plans for a dietician to oversee Pinilla’s daily intake of calories.

According to Charlie Mann, Romanov’s PR man at the time, Pinilla was the owner’s pet project. “He treated him almost like a son in the way that he looked after him,” says Mann. “He was one of these very mysterious players who could have been sensational. He was never going to be at Hearts for a long time, but there was certainly a feeling that, if they could get this boy playing, if they could just get his head right, they could have made a lot of money on him.”

It wasn’t to be. In July 2008, Pinilla left the club, claiming that Romanov had reneged on a lucrative new three-year deal.

There were short, unfulfilling spells with Vasco Da Gama and Apollon Limassol before he joined Grosseto, of Serie B, which turned out to be the best decision of his career.

There, he scored 23 goals in 24 games, including 12 in a row, beating the competition record of 11 held by Gabriel Batistuta. The Tuscan club finished seventh, Pinilla was signed by Palermo, of the top flight, and Marcelo Bielsa recalled him to the national side.

Now with Cagliari, he is a popular figure, thanks partly to his passionate goal celebrations. Nicknamed “Pinigol”, he has scored seven in each of the last two seasons. While many have come from the penalty spot, speculation linking him with a return to Inter is a measure of his progress.

Not as mobile as he used to be, he still has a ferocious shot, and his first touch is immaculate. While he will not displace Alexis Sanchez as the main striker in Chile’s energetic pressing game, he is already in Jorge Sampaoli’s provisional squad of 24. Assuming he makes the final 23 for Brazil, he could have a vital contribution to make from the bench as Chile take on Australia, Spain and the Netherlands in Group B.

“If they are losing or drawing and want to be more direct then he will be the alternative,” says Joel Sked, a Chilean football commentator.

“Technically, he is fantastic. Knock a ball into him, and it will stick. What I think he lacks to be a starter for Chile is a bit of dynamism.”

At Hearts, he lacked more than that, which was a pity, for him and the supporters.

Of all the players who came and went from Tynecastle during those turbulent years under Romanov, Pinilla had the potential to be one of the best.