To good use in Argentine football, Maximiliano Romero already had a nickname before he was sold to PSV. The Tiger – the Tiger. Same nickname as Radamel Falcao, the much-admired Colombian striker who was sold to FC Porto in 2009 by his Argentine club River Plate. “Romero was delighted when I asked him in an interview a few years ago if he was too.” The Tiger called savage,” says Argentine sports journalist Carlos Martino.
They were also delighted in Eindhoven that winter of 2018. Once again, the club seemed to have recruited a special South American. “PSV brings top potential with Maximiliano Romero,” wrote Football International. The British press even talked about ‘the next Lionel Messi’.
But the predator in Romero has not really been able to discover the Netherlands yet. Pursued by serious injuries, Romero still has not managed a full Eredivisie match, now that his third base place in four years beckons on Sunday: Ajax at home. Perhaps the game of the year for PSV.
“We have always said that Maxi has something special,” says former team manager Mart van den Heuvel, who still guides foreign PSV players. “We just don’t know exactly what.”
Fourteen games. Two basic places. Twelve raids. 176 playing minutes. A goal. And 21 months of rehabilitation. Who is the striker behind these painful statistics?
“Maxi was twelve when I first saw him play,” said Guillermo Tagliaferri, sports journalist for Argentina’s largest newspaper. Clarion. In the youth of professional club Vélez Sarsfield, the attacker strings the goals together. “It was already much discussed at the time: where would he go in Europe? At the age of seventeen he already played in the first team of Vélez.”
Romero comes from a middle-class family. Like his brother Walter, he played football in the national youth teams of his native country. “Physically and mentally strong,” Argentine sports reporters describe him. Carlos Martino, that of Romero’s nickname: „It has always been his dream to play for a top European club, in England, Spain or Italy. In Argentina he already took private lessons with a teacher to be able to deal with the media well.”
Arsenal is one of the first clubs to sign up in 2015. “I want to follow in the footsteps of Diego Maradona,” the confident teenager told Reuters at the time. “Becoming a champion with Vélez, to the World Cup and win the cup.” He also mentions his idol Radamel Falcao. As aggressive as the Colombian is in the penalty area, he also wants to be.
The deal is almost done. It is reported that Arsenal would have paid 5.5 million euros for him. But then Romero reports that he thinks he is too young for such an adventure and wants to learn English first. Not much later, the real reason for the deal’s bouncing comes out: the striker suffered a knee injury just before the contract was to be signed. By the time PSV reports, he has recovered from that.
In December 2017, the Eindhoverse club in German image congratulations by sporting director Michael Reschke of Vfb Stuttgart, that Romero would also have wanted to incorporate. “I’m sure it will be worth around thirty million euros in two to three years,” says Reschke.
PSV is depositing around ten million euros for the striker. But after a few weeks, disaster sets in. During his first training sessions at PSV, it appears that Romero has not recovered sufficiently from an upper leg injury that he already suffered from in Argentina. The training intensity is also much higher than with Vélez. His assertiveness is counterproductive. He wants too much, too soon.
To recuperate, Romero has to train separately from the group for a while. But soon he is slowed down by backlash. Weeks turn into months, months into half a year. When Mark van Bommel starts as head coach in the summer of 2018, ‘the new Messi’ has still not played a minute for PSV.
Language as an obstacle
That changes in August of that year. Romero then plays for nine minutes against FC Utrecht. It is his official Eredivisie debut, although it is also the last competition appearance of that season. The striker mainly has to rely on matches in Jong PSV.
He also suffered from injuries that season. The coaching staff sometimes finds it difficult to get through to him; Romero hardly speaks English. On the field, that’s not much of a problem. PSV is known for making South American footballers flourish by giving them the space to speak their own language. Some coaches speak Spanish fluently (Phillip Cocu, Ronald Koeman), others (Guus Hiddink) send their assistants to Spanish lessons.
But with Romero, language nevertheless proves to be an obstacle. With Google Translate it is a lot more difficult to understand the step-by-step plan after serious injuries. For that reason, PSV approaches Max Caldas, then national coach of the Dutch hockey players. Also an Argentinian, but one who has been working in the Netherlands for a long time.
Caldas: „Clubarts Wart van Soest, who worked with me on the staff of the Dutch team, asked if I would like to come and talk. The idea was to explain to Romero what the staff wanted from him and why. Get something loose with him, so to speak. He wanted to come back soon and had all kinds of ideas how to achieve that. I listened to that and shared it with the staff. The aim was for both parties to understand each other better.”
Romero wanted to play earlier than PSV had in mind, and a lot, Caldas recalls. “I explained that the Dutch are willing to listen. If you ask good questions, you will usually get answers. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” I said. ‘You can say to the staff: I see it like this, how do you see it?’ Let us know what you’re thinking about. Don’t be so afraid to ask and express your doubts.”
PSV soon saw a change in the Argentinian, says Caldas. “He loosened up, got into more craziness. For a young boy I thought he understood the Netherlands and the Dutch very well. How does society work, how do the Dutch treat children, what values do they have? He really thought about his place in society and his role in the neighborhood where he lived. The place of his family in it too – he had one child at the time. He really liked the lifestyle of the Dutch. he was very in tune with what was going on around him.”
pumped up rush hour
Halfway through 2019, PSV rents the attacker for a year to his former club Vélez in Argentina. The idea is that Romero can regain his strength there. “He played well there, has matured,” said sports journalist Guillermo Tagliaferri of Clarinet.
Rik Elfrink, PSV watcher of the Eindhovens Dagblad, saw a pumped-up striker when the Argentinian reported back to Eindhoven for the following season. “I never had the feeling that he was mentally unwell. That he was lazy. There have been enough players at PSV where I thought: there is more than bad luck with you.”
Yet things go wrong again at the Slovenian NS Mura, in the preliminary round of the Europa League, a few days after Romero scored the winning goal in the Eredivisie against FC Emmen. His substitute lasts one minute; he tears off his cruciate ligament. Elfrink: „I can still see him lying there. I felt so sorry for that boy.”
The Argentinian goes under the knife. Months of individual training follow before he plays his first official game in September 2021, more than a year after the drama in Slovenia. “If you want to come back from such serious injuries, you have to be cut from a certain cloth,” says PSV assistant coach Boudewijn Zenden. “I think the negative experiences have taught him to work hard and better understand what it means to be a pro. He has gained a lot of knowledge about his body.”
In his role at PSV, Zenden takes care of foreign purchases. He speaks several languages and tries to put players like Romero at ease. “Maxi is always in for a joke, for competition. He is a South American macho, although he also has a small heart. In the beginning he walked around with mate [een speciale kruidenthee, gedronken uit een kalebas, door een speciaal filter-rietje]. If he acts like a macho, and I laugh at him for that, then he should laugh too. He knows it’s a pose.”
Things are better on the field. Partly thanks to a few appearances at Jong PSV, under the wings of a trainer who admires Romero: Ruud van Nistelrooij. “Everything he says to me, I take 100 percent to heart,” Romero said in an interview with ESPN in November. “For example, if he played with Manchester United on a Sunday afternoon, it was morning in Buenos Aires. After getting up I watched that game. When Ruud scored, there was a commentator in Argentina who would always sing. That is where my fascination for Van Nistelrooij arose.”
Proud, that also characterizes the man who played 25 minutes in the cup match against Telstar (2-1) on Thursday evening. “He walks with his chest out and his head up,” says Zenden. “It’s not easy when you’re injured. Now that things are going in the right direction, I notice that he is getting happier. He leads the battle. Is a chatterbox, who always wants to challenge. Whether it’s foot volley or slat kick, he has to win. If you lose to him, you can hear him laughing on the other side of the training complex.”
Zenden sees a player who would love to succeed at PSV. “I don’t see anyone walking around who prefers to pack their bags and go back to Argentina.” He did not realize that they wrote in the Dutch press at the time that PSV had bought a cat in the bag with Romero, thinks Zenden. “I’m happy if he understands English. So he doesn’t lose sleep over the Dutch press.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 22 January 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 22, 2022