Lionel Messi’s idol just retired

Pablo Aimar, the curly-froed magician, and the one player who could make even the great Lionel Messi blush, has retired at 35 after a series of debilitating injuries.

Aimar recently penned a farewell letter to his River Plate teammates after he was left off of the team’s Copa Libertadores squad by coach Marcelo Gallardo. The past few seasons had been torrid for Aimar as he underwent three ankle surgeries, a sadly recurring theme in what’s been a career hampered by injuries.

Though younger fans of the game may not be know him well, it’s not hard to see why Messi idolized Aimar, an effortless player who seemed born to dance on the field. An entertainer rightfully nicknamed “El Payasito” (the clown) for his effortless ability, Aimar was a fan favorite everywhere he went.

Aimar first made his name in Malaysia at the 1997 Youth World Cup for Argentina. In that tournament, Aimar and another brilliant Argentine by the name of Juan Román Riquelme wreaked havoc on their fellow teenagers — a field that included the likes of Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Michael Owen — as Argentina took home top honors with a 2-1 victory in the final against Uruguay.

Returning to Argentina as a world youth champion, Aimar continued impressing at River Plate, and it wasn’t long before he was rightly touted as one of the game’s biggest emerging talents. When he eventually made his massive 24 million euro move to Valencia in 2001 as a 21-year-old, Europe was put on red alert.

20 Feb 2001:  Pablo Cesar Aimar of Valencia shows his talent and skill to leave the defence standing still during the UEFA Champions League Group A match against Manchester United played at Old Trafford, in Manchester, England. The match ended in a 1-1 draw.  Mandatory Credit: Alex Livesey /AllsportGetty/Alex Livesey

Pablo Aimar during his Valencia days. Credit: Alex Livesey /Allsport

Aimar enjoy his best years as a professional at Valencia, truly making his mark on the game. He shined under Rafa Benítez, then an upstart coach hoping to prove himself after leading Tenerife to promotion in the previous campaign. Valencia had just lost the previous two Champions League finals, and Benítez was brought in to replace the outgoing Héctor Cúper, but it wasn’t a move that pleased the Valencia faithful. Benítez was third choice, after both Luis Aragonés and Javier Irureta rejected the position.

But it worked out splendidly for Valencia. Benítez and Aimar led the team to its first Spanish title in 31 years. Benítez built his side round the talented but frail midfielder, highlighting his talents had hiding his weaknesses (physicality and work-rate). With the double pivot of Ruben Baraja and the always steady David Albelda guarding the back four, a liberated Aimar was granted the freedom to paint the pitch with his magic. Wingers Rufete and Miguel Angel Angulo gave the team options out wide, and Mista provided a target man for Aimar to play off of.

The Argentine flourished.

His peak years were spectacular, winning two La Liga titles and the UEFA Cup with Valencia. One of the highlights was his goal against Liverpool in the 2002 Champions League. After some brilliant and intricate build-up play, Aimar slotted home a simply finish as the Merseyside team looked mesmerized.

In his prime, the diminutive magician became a sight to behold.

That game, it’s rumored, is what got Benítez the Liverpool job, a coaching change that would negatively affect Aimar’s career. Claudio Ranieri replaced Benítez, and although the Italian’s first stint at the Mestalla (pre-2000) was largely successful, his second tenure was rocky, to say the least. Ranieri brought with him a hoard of Italian players and froze Aimar out of the starting lineup, much to the chagrin of fans of Los Che. After a series of poor results, Ranieri was fired in February of 2005, leaving with reigning champions languishing in sixth place.

Aimar eventually left Valencia in the summer of 2006, moving to Real Zaragoza, where he played with compatriots Andres D’Alessandro and Diego Milito. For a brief period of time, the team was one of the most attractive and exciting in La Liga, but in Aimar’s second season with the club — one in which he was hampered by injury — Zaragoza was relegated.

Aimar was off again, this time to Benfica.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 19:  Scott Brown of Celtic tackles Pablo Aimar of SL Benfica during the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Celtic and SL Benfica at Celtic Park on September 19, 2012 in Glasgow, Scotland.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Getty/Jeff J Mitchell

Aimar and his dope hair played for Benfica for five years. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Injury problems reared their head again at the Estádio da Luz, and tactically he also struggled being played in a more advanced role. The next year, however, Aimar, along with Oscar Cardozo, Javier Saviola, and Ángel Di María led Benfica to its first league title in five years. Again, he was surrounded by players that brought out the best in him. Javier Garcia and Ramires manned the midfield, allowing Aimar to link up with countrymen Di María and Saviola.

After five years in Portugal, Aimar moved onto Johor Darul Takzim of Malaysia, the same country where he first dazzled fans back in 1997. But injury problems would again limit his impact. A year later, he returned home to finish out his career for River Plate.

Aimar should have achieved more. Injuries played a prominent role in his career, and as a result, he was always a liability. But he was still a special player; when he touched the ball, fans in the stadium would collectively rise, eagerly anticipating the magic to come. In fact, watching old clips of Aimar in his prime — with his tiny frame, low center of gravity, and floppy hair — is eerily reminiscent of Messi. In many ways Aimar was Messi-lite, without the goal scoring and consistency that’s made Lionel the legend he is today.

Pablo Aimar perfectly encompasses what makes soccer so great. He was revered for skills that were somewhat intangible and unquantifiable. He didn’t need buckets of goals to be recognized as a genius. He was Isco with a more refined passing game, his jukes and feints mesmerizing defenders, and his playmaking ability sublime.

It’s just a shame he was never able to overcome the physical issues, but if Lionel Messi sees you as his inspiration, it’s not such a disappointing career, is it?