Football: Palace break Boca junior's heart

Argentinian who trained with Maradona is now unemployed in Croydon thanks to disastrous transfer
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THERE CAN be few stranger stories in Crystal Palace's recent turbulent past than the curious tale of Walter Del Rio. A year ago the 22-year-old Argentinian midfielder was a promising squad player for Boca Juniors in Buenos Aries, trained with Diego Maradona, and was hoping one day to play for his country.

Today, after a bizarre eight-month stay at Selhurst Park, Del Rio is a victim of the crisis that has seen Palace go into administration with debts of pounds 22m. The club has not paid him for two months, despite the fact that he is under contract. He lives by himself in a flat in Croydon, wondering whether the bailiffs are about to evict him or repossess his car. The club pays his rent but Del Rio says Palace have given no indication when they will stop. The same goes for the repayments on his car, which Palace had been deducting from his salary.

When Del Rio came to England, Palace had just been bought by Mark Goldberg and Terry Venables had been installed as the coach. There were few signs that, less than a year later, Palace would be in the midst of a financial crisis.

Del Rio arrived in August, one of three Argentinians who were brought to Selhurst Park last summer. According to a recent leaked letter from Jim McAvoy, who resigned as Palace's chief executive earlier this year, finding the three players and bringing them to London cost Palace pounds 448,769 in agents' fees and expenses alone, before any contracts were signed. A further pounds 187,500, according to McAvoy, was paid in transfer fees.

The signing of the first two Argentinians was trumpeted in the club programme - one of them was even photographed wearing a Palace shirt - but Pablo Rodrigues (of Argentinos Juniors) then failed a medical and went home, and Cristian Ledesma (a club-mate and Under-21 international team-mate of Rodrigues) returned to Argentina because he was unhappy with the deal offered. Only Del Rio remained. He joined the club on a one-year contract with an option for a further three if things worked out.

The total reward for Palace's Argentinian escapade - at an estimated cost of nearly pounds 900,000 - has been one first-team start by Del Rio, plus one substitute appearance and a handful of outings in the reserves. Goldberg, when asked last week about the cost of the deals, said only: "Your figures are wrong."

Del Rio said that he only travelled to England after being told that Venables had been impressed by watching a video of him in action. He had made 10 appearances for Boca Juniors and had trained with the Argentinian Under-21 squad. "I was very excited to have the chance to play for Crystal Palace," Del Rio said yesterday. A trial followed and Del Rio signed his deal.

On 19 September, he got his first chance of first team football, playing in a 4-0 defeat at Barnsley. "I was surprised to be in the team," Del Rio said afterwards, though he relished the opportunity. In the next match, a 1-0 home win against Sheffield United, he was brought on as a substitute and felt he was progressing. The club's coach, Terry Fenwick, even came on to the pitch afterwards, put his arm around the player, and said: "You did very well today. Well done." It was Del Rio's last appearance in the first team.

"Perhaps Steve Coppell didn't like my football," Del Rio said, contemplating why he has not been picked by Palace's current manager. "But no one ever talked to me or told me."

According to a source at the club, this lack of communication was not unusual. New players - Chinese, Swedish, Israeli, Australian and Yugoslavian among them - were arriving all the time. "At times, there wouldn't even have been anyone to meet new players at the airport if someone from the training ground hadn't been sent off to Heathrow with a placard saying `Crystal Palace'," an insider said.

In March, after the scale of Palace's financial problems had become apparent, Del Rio received a two-sentence letter signed by the club secretary, Michael Hurst. "This is to confirm that Crystal Palace Football Club have given you a free transfer. You have the club's authority to seek future employment with any other club," it read. Del Rio was not paid in March.

A second letter, dated 13 April, said: "I, as secretary, acting with the authority and on behalf of the Club, hereby give notice that the Club will cancel your contract on 30 June 1999." Again it was signed by Hurst. The club had decided to terminate Del Rio's contract (which it is entitled to do) after one year. It also stopped paying him - presumably because his services were seen as the most expendable. The Israeli David Amsalem appears to be in the same situation, but, unlike Del Rio, he no longer trains at the club.

"I'm very worried," Del Rio said yesterday of his current situation. "It's very difficult. I sent my last pay home and now I have no money." Del Rio's wages make a real difference to his mother, who lives with his two brothers near Buenos Aires (his father died 13 years ago). Del Rio still goes into training every day to ensure he cannot be accused of breach of contract. "Now I train on my own. It's very difficult, I cannot spend time training with the other players."

Brendon Batson, the deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said: "We are pursuing the administrators to ensure the players get paid.

"We're not in a position to do anything else. The only guarantee I can give the players is that, if the club stays in business, all the players, present and past, will be paid in full."

Neil Fewings, the agent who has now been asked to look after Del Rio's interests, said he could do no more than ask the PFA to intervene. He added: "We're trying to find an alternative situation for Walter, looking at all avenues. He has a great attitude. He's not one of these players who've come over here thinking he's owed a living. He's a lovely bloke, just looking to get on, play football, and prove himself somewhere."

Del Rio, whose Italian grandfather means he has no permit problems, added: "At the moment I'm looking for a new club. Any club. In London, in England."

Anywhere but SE25, in fact.