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Friday, March 14, 2008

Discovering a Professional Player Nobody Knew About: Gonzalo Peralta by Jim Riggio


Image courtesy of Jim Riggio.

by Jim Riggio for World Football Commentaries.

One of the most satisfying roles of being a local sports writer is seeing one of the athletes you once covered become a professional.

I spent a number of years covering high school sports in an area just north of downtown Los Angeles and was fortunate enough to see a few who have gone on to make a living in their respective sport.

One of those was Gonzalo Peralta, who I saw play when he was a ninth grader during the 1995-96 school year. Peralta, who had just moved from Argentina, was a shy kid who was learning English and initially didn’t even start the season on his high school varsity team.

His high school, Burbank High, at the time was involved in lots of chaos surrounding a sex scandal with the school’s American football team that was like a soap opera. Thus Peralta, like current Pittsburgh Pirate star Freddy Sanchez, were just two star athletes that didn't receive much attention.

Eventually, Adam Saldana, Burbank’s coach at the time, realized Peralta’s talent and moved him up to the varsity.

Although Peralta played well, his team was mediocre, going 11-9-1 overall and 5-5 in league play. It did not make the playoffs. I remember watching Peralta, and I could see he came from a completely different school of football or soccer. Growing up with Rio Platense, Peralta understood the team game and believed in passing the ball to all of his teammates. Unfortunately, most of these players were lacking in game knowledge, having only played in youth or park league games, where the emphasis was strictly recreational.

At the end of the season, our newspaper picked an all-area team. This consisted of selecting the best players from about eight to 10 high schools.

I had made a plea for Peralta. But I knew it would be difficult, as two teams in the area had won CIF Southern Section championships, the highest honor one can get. La Canada High School was the No. 1 rated team in the United States and many of the players selected to the all-area team played for the Spartans. St. Francis, located adjacent to La Canada, also won a section championship, and was led by future U.S. Under-23 international and now longtime Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder, Peter Vagenas.

With scholarships lined up to schools like UCLA, Duke, Maryland, UC Berkeley and others for La Canada players, and with little support from fellow coaches in the Foothill League, in which Peralta played, I wasn’t sure Peralta would even make our all-area team. I was convinced all along that he would be a professional player, so I remember begging to get him on the all-area second team.

A year later, in his sophomore year, Peralta began the season with the Burbank High team. But early into the season, saw that his career was going nowhere if he continued to play high school soccer. His vision of the game was better than some at the professional level. So he decided to drop out of high school, and said he planned on going to Italy. I wrote a story about him going to test his waters overseas. He had an interest in playing for either AS Roma, which was coached by Argentine Carlos Bianchi at the time or for Napoli, where Argentine legend Diego Maradona once played. Before I left his house in interviewing him, I asked my photographer to take some pictures of me with him, because I knew he would some day be a professional.

I never saw Peralta again. Some had told me he didn’t end up going to Italy and moved back to Argentina.

Over the last few years, I had once or twice typed his name into the search engine Google, and thought I saw he was playing in the lower ranks of Argentina football. But I was not certain because I figured Gonzalo Peralta might be a common name.

Then, in January, I was shocked to see a player who played on second division Argentine champion Almirante Brown named Gonzalo Peralta had signed as a senior international with D.C. United of Major League Soccer. I also found on a message board confirming that he did live in Burbank, California for two years in the 1990s.

At last, I felt I had discovered a star. And sure, enough I opened up a drawer at home and found about 3 or 4 photos taken of me with Peralta.

It was after the story on Peralta that I began to start to follow Italian soccer again. The Internet was a new thing, I was finishing up college and I remember learning from a fellow Italian classmate in a journalism class how to look up Italian soccer news online.

Since then, Italian soccer has become my passion, as I follow the sport as if I was a beat writer living in Italy.

It’s amazing how things happen in the world, and to see Gonzalo Peralta playing in Major League Soccer is certainly a pleasant surprise for me.

About the Author

Jim Riggio has written about Italian and international soccer for ESPN/Soccernet, and was an interviewee for my column at AC Cugini Scuola Calcio. After the 2006 World Cup, he contributed an interview with Gianluca Zambrotta of FC Barcelona and the Italian National team for my World Football site.

On 21 February 2008, Mr. Riggio was interviewed by Diane Scalia, also known as Chef Di, for the SportsBites segment about the Champions League on GrandSlamGourmet.com.

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