The Argentina squad which won the World Youth Championship (now the Under-20 World Cup) in 2005 had some stellar names. The most prominent of these were striking duo Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, both of whom delivered on their early promise to become world-class performers at senior level. Pablo Zabaleta, then playing his trade in midfield, went on to win two Premier League titles with Manchester City. Goalkeeper Oscar Ustari was fast-tracked into the country’s senior squad for the 2006 World Cup while still a teeanger. Fernando Gago earned a move to Real Madrid. There was also a defender who went on to win senior international caps – for Italy.
That man was Gabriel Paletta, a defender who rose through the ranks at Buenos Aires club Banfield to earn his place in the Argentina squad which triumphed in that tournament in Netherlands 13 years ago. Shortly before that competition, the 19-year-old was elevated into the senior Banfield squad when they reached the knockout rounds of the Copa Libertadores and within a few months he had agreed a move to Liverpool, therefore taking him from Banfield to Anfield. Come on, you knew that was coming!
Paletta formally joined Liverpool in July 2006 and was one of several young players from Spanish-speaking nations to be signed by Rafael Benitez in the middle of the decade. However, with Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher the undisputed first choice centre-back pairing, the young Argentine would have to feed off scraps when it came to first team action. He got his opportunity in a high-scoring Carling Cup tie against Reading, the Reds shading a seven-goal barnstormer. His Premier League bow came a few weeks later at Wigan before he was among a distinctly youthful Liverpool line-up for a Champions League tie against Galatasaray when the Reds had already qualified for the last 16. That match was notable for being the Merseysiders’ first visit to Istanbul, and indeed to the Ataturk Stadium, since the legendary 2005 final. Liverpool lost 3-2 on this occasion, but it mattered not as they still won their group.
Paletta continued to be reliant on cup competitions for first team games and he was in the team that was subjected to a 6-3 Carling Cup demolition by Arsenal at Anfield, which came three days after the Gunners ended Liverpool’s FA Cup defence at the same venue. Even though the Reds went on to reach the Champions League final that season and Benitez indiscreetly changed his team selection for end-of-term domestic fixtures, something that was not lost on then-Sheffield United boss Neil Warnock, Paletta still found gametime hard to come by. He had been linked with a loan switch to Levante towards the end of the 2006/07 campaign and terms were even agreed for such a move, but it never materialised.
Instead, he returned to his homeland at the beginning of 2007/08, signing for Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors upon Liverpool’s capture of fellow countryman Emiliano Insua. He would end 2007 with another world title, this time at club level as Boca defeated AC Milan in the Club World Cup, a tournament which would have featured Liverpool had the Champions League final in Athens turned out differently. Paletta was finally getting regular action at senior level with Boca but he suffered a cruel injury blow in 2008 when a cruciate ligament tear ruled him out for six months.
He had nonetheless played well enough to be linked with a move back to Europe, with Serie A club Palermo showing plenty of interest, but a disagreement over a transfer price ended any chance of that move materialising. He would end up in Italy in 2010, though, after Parma secured his signature and, with substantially more experience behind him than when he went to Liverpool, he became a regular in the Parma line-up. He thrived as part of a three-man defensive setup that was preferred by coach Roberto Donadoni.
However, the club went through severe financial difficulty around 2014 and they were forced to sell numerous first team players, Paletta moving to AC Milan midway through the 2014/15 campaign. Although he was given a sustained run in the first team, the San Siro club loaned him to Atalanta for the following season, impressive performances in Bergamo earning him a regular place in Milan’s line-up for 2016/17. He helped the sleeping giants qualify for last season’s Europa League, but would not play in their run to the last 16. Last February, Paletta joined the Chinese Super League revolution, signing for a Jiangsu Suning team that also features Chelsea alumnus Ramires and ex-Shakhtar Donetsk attacker Alex Teixeira.
Despite winning a World Youth Championship with Argentina, Paletta went on to represent Italy at senior international level, having qualified for the Azzurri through his great-grandfather. He won three caps for the four-time world champions, all of which came in 2014. That breakthrough was well timed, as it won him a place in Italy’s World Cup squad that year. He played in the 2-1 win over England in Manaus but it was a forgettable tournament for both countries as they were eliminated in the group stage. Mind you, it’s one step further than Italy managed for this year’s tournament.
Paletta has gone on to make a decent career and represent some world famous clubs, but in hindsight he probably made his move to Liverpool too soon. It would have taken someone spectacular to dislodge either Hyypia or Carragher in their prime and the Italy defender just didn’t have it, instead being one of those players who came and went at Anfield largely unnoticed.