16 South American starlets who came to the Premier League... and disappeared without a trace
Jonathan Calleri (West Ham)
Calleri arrived at West Ham on loan from the peculiar Deportivo Maldonado, having scored 39 goals in his previous 90 club appearances around Argentina and Brazil. He’d added another for Argentina at the 2016 Olympics, and was seen as a leftfield solution to West Ham’s striker woes.
Owners David Gold and David Sullivan had splurged millions on some 40 different forwards to no avail before Calleri’s arrival – and this move proved no different.
The rough and tumble of the Premier League proved too much for Calleri, who scored just once in his first 10 appearances. He was eager to cut his loan short in January, so Carlos Tevez was enlisted to give him a pep talk. Calleri agreed to stay, but the goals failed to materialise and after eight more appearances he hot-footed away from east London.
Since then he’s popped up on loan in Spain at Las Palmas and Alaves.
Angelo Henriquez (Manchester United)
Recruited from Universidad de Chile for a bargain £4 million, Henriquez had scored 15 goals in 28 games for his hometown club. The Chilean was no Chicharito, though, lacking the same strength and poacher’s instinct that made the Mexican such a force at Old Trafford.
Keen to toughen him up, Sir Alex Ferguson sent Henriquez out on loan to Wigan in 2012/13 – but it didn’t have the desired effect. Shorn of confidence, the youngster played just four Premier League games, scoring once in a dismal home defeat to Sunderland, and was an unused substitute in the 2013 FA Cup Final.
Another lacklustre loan at Real Zaragoza followed, before Henriquez finally found his scoring touch in Europe on loan Dinamo Zagreb, who eventually made the move permanent in 2015. Since then he’s won a Copa America with Chile and is now back at Universidad. He's still only 24.
Carlos Villanueva (Blackburn)
Villanueva was set to play a crucial role in Paul Ince’s plans at Blackburn. Signed from Audax Italiano on loan, he was a cultured playmaker and Chile’s reigning player of the year at the time.
The attacking midfielder would pull the strings from midfield, thought Ince, who assumed that 50 goals in 110 games at Audax suggested he had a potential gem on his hands. And it started well: a goal and an assist on his debut against Grimsby in the League Cup, but then Villanueva became the only person in the country aged over 10 (we assume) to contract chicken pox.
Forced to wait until mid-September for his Premier League debut, Villanueva eventually made his bow as a substitute against Fulham and helped set up the game’s winning goal. An assist on his first start against Newcastle put things back on track, but when Ince was sacked and replaced by the more direct Sam Allardyce, Villanueva’s days were numbered.
He left the following summer for Al Shabab in the Middle East and has since moved on to Al-Ittihad. Hmm.
Luciano Figueroa (Birmingham)
In July 2003, Birmingham ended their interest in Francis Jeffers by splashing out £2.5 million on a 22-year-old Argentine striker dubbed the next Gabriel Batistuta. In his defence, Figueroa had just finished top scorer in the Clausura with 17 goals in 19 games for Rosario Central – part of an overall haul comprising 35 in 57 games.
Despite fighting off competition from Rangers and Osasuna to sign him, Birmingham seemed hesitant to play Figueroa. In fact, he managed just one Premier League appearance at the club and another in the League Cup. Though Figueroa impressed for the reserves, manager Steve Bruce felt the striker lacked the necessary physicality and he was released after a single season.
Despite enduring a nomadic career since in Spain, Argentina, Italy, Greece, Ecuador and Malaysia, Figueroa did manage 15 caps and nine goals for Argentina, and is one of few players to feature for both Boca Juniors and River Plate. He’s now manager of Johor Darul Ta’zim, one of his former clubs, in Malaysia.
Diego Gavilan (Newcastle)
Sir Bobby Robson didn’t make many mistakes during his time at Newcastle, but the signing of Gavilan was definitely one of them. The first Paraguayan to play in the Premier League, Gavilan was just 19 when he arrived from Cerro Porteno for £2m in January 2000.
Dubbed ‘Pompero’ in Paraguay, which roughly translates as “running like the wind”, the midfielder had pace to burn but rarely used it. Despite a solid debut in the Tyne-Wear derby, Gavilan struggled for consistency and Magpies fans had to wait until April before he scored his first goal for the club.
Diminutive and ponderous on the ball, Gavilan was loaned out to Tecos, Internacional and Udinese in the hope he would adapt. Newcastle eventually cut their losses in 2004 when the winger was sold to Internacional. He was most recently with Independiente CG back in Paraguay, where he hung up his boots in 2011 aged just 30.
Juan Cobian (Sheffield Wednesday)
The first Argentine to play in the Premier League alongside Derby’s Horacio Carbonari (both started on the opening day), Cobian arrived at Sheffield Wednesday from Boca Juniors on a free transfer in the summer of 1998. Primarily a right-back, he started seven of Wednesday’s first eight league games.
But it was all downhill from there. A nightmare performance in a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Middlesbrough preceded a similarly grim display in the League Cup, where his poor backpass gifted Cambridge United’s Trevor Benjamin the only goal.
He left for Charlton at the end of the season but never played for the Addicks, moving on to Aberdeen, Swindon and lowly CD Linares in Spain before returning to Argentina.
Mark Gonzalez (Liverpool)
Gonzalez overcame work permit issues and a cruciate knee ligament injury to land a dream move to Liverpool from Albacete in 2006. Recruited to provide cover and competition for the injury-prone Harry Kewell, Gonzalez kicked his Liverpool career off with the winning goal in a Champions League qualifier against Maccabi Haifa.
He proved no great replacement, though, and Rafa Benitez cut his losses after just a single season (albeit one in which he made 36 appearances). Sold on to Real Betis, the South American eventually ended up at CSKA Moscow and spent five years in Russia before returning to the club he started his career with, Universidad Catolica. He’s still playing in Chile now, aged 34, for Deportes Magallanes.
Walter Del Rio (Crystal Palace)
A famous bit of Terry Venables wheeler-dealing led to 22-year-old Boca Juniors defender Walter del Rio pitching up at Selhurst Park in the summer of 1998. Purchased for a paltry £187,500, Del Rio – or “Witcha” as he was known in Argentina – was considered a player with huge potential.
In a season where Palace recruited the misfiring Michele Padovano and portly Tomas Brolin, however, Del Rio distinguished himself as the club’s worst signing. The Eagles were on the end of a 4-0 mauling against Barnsley on a nightmare debut, and Del Rio never started another game for Palace.
A further two substitute appearances followed before Venables was replaced by Steve Coppell. Frozen out of the first team by March 1999, Del Rio refused the offer of a free transfer, continuing to train with the reserves. He eventually left for Dundee in July 2000, linking up with Claudio Caniggia.