Football: Ascent of smart Alex and modest Montano

Conrad Leach on a Colombian striking prodigy's coming of age
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The Independent Online
IF ANYONE shouts at Jhonnier Montano to act his age and not his shirt number when he plays in the Copa America tonight they will be reminding the Colombian starlet not to get ideas above his station. After all he is still only 16 years old when his shirt reads 17.

But it may just jolt the playmaker into the realm of reality and out of the other-worldly sense of purpose and calm that he has shown so far when coming on as a substitute in his country's three group games, all of which they have won, to produce an enthralling quarter-final against Chile here in Asuncion.

For so far Montano has shown none of the nerves you might expect of someone who is the youngest person in the world's oldest continental football championship. The way he conducts himself it is as if he has had a blood transfusion from the equally sanguine Michael Owen.

Comparisons with Liverpool's finest are appropriate given that just over a year ago Owen made his mark on the world stage with his brilliant goal against Argentina in the World Cup. Maybe it is something about Argentina that brings out the best in others but last Sunday against the men in blue and white Montano scored one of the finest goals of this Copa America, as he took the ball from inside his own half and chipped the goalkeeper from 25 yards with the help of a slight deflection to make it 3-0.

Montano himself called it "a beautiful goal". His admiration for Owen, the young hero of France 98, is obvious: "He is one of the very best players around in England at the moment, at one of the biggest clubs."

Not that the Colombian is doing too badly himself. Having been reared by Deportivo Cali from the age of nine he left his homeland and went on trial with Ajax last January. He didn't make the grade there as the Dutch club told him he wasn't cultured enough nor could he head the ball or kick it with his right foot. As rejections go that could rank with the man who turned down the Beatles.

Two months later he joined the Argentinian second division club Quilmes but his stay there was brief. After starring in the Colombian team that won the Toulon International Youth Tournament in May, beating Argentina in the final, the Italian club and Uefa Cup holders Parma snapped him up for pounds 1m.

All this may seem too much too young for Montano although not according to his national manager, Javier Alvarez, whose long deliberation over answers to the press revealed a man who does not make decisions lightly. He said: "Jhonnier is a genius. He could play for any team in the world. He has a change of rhythm. When others are marked he can surprise the opposition. When he has the ball no one can get it from him. I think he is a great football player."

Montano was called from his holidays into the squad at the last minute thanks to an injury to a certain Tino Asprilla. But Alvarez is convinced he does not share any of the off-pitch characteristics of the former Newcastle United man. He said: "Jhonnier has both feet on the ground and a good structure of thinking because he is the son of a teacher."

Montano plays down his manager's eulogies, stating simply and disarmingly: "I'm very lucky to be in this squad but I'm not the genius that the team has been looking for."

But ominously for Chile and the others left in the Copa America, the teenager says coolly: "I'm not worried about who we play - we fear no one."