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Pinilla has taken the long, winding road to Rio

JOHN McGLYNN is so startled that he repeats the name to check he has heard correctly.

Pinilla was something of a colourful character in his early days, now 30 he is more settled. Picture: EPA
Pinilla was something of a colourful character in his early days, now 30 he is more settled. Picture: EPA

"Pinilla?!" he exclaims. "The boy who was at Hearts?"

The Livingston manager can be forgiven for his surprise. He was on the coaching staff at Tynecastle during Maurico Pinilla's curious stint at the club and is finding it difficult to reconcile the revelation that the same injury-prone, ineffectual striker with whom he worked is now part of Chile's World Cup squad.

Six years have passed since the 30-year-old's two-season sojourn in Scotland, a stint in which his seven Hearts appearances were eclipsed by the number of times he turned up on the front pages of the papers in his home country. Pinilla was what some might euphemistically describe as being "a character".

"I think he had been a naughty boy before he came," McGlynn told Herald Sport. But the bampottery was not confined to the player's past. Far from it, in fact. After two goals in his first five games, Pinilla suffered a calf injury and would not be seen in Edinburgh for the rest of the campaign, returning to Chile for treatment and rejoining his first club, Universidad de Chile, on loan.

Then the fun really started. After murmurings of a bizarre blackmail plot involving a video of him singing karaoke while naked, Pinilla was discovered in the buff once again, this time in a hotel with Maria Jose Lopez, the model wife of his international captain Luis Jimenez.

Ms Lopez attempted to defuse the situation - "My love is Luis and Mauricio was only an adventure. Pinilla is not special to me" - but that only fuelled a feud which later erupted publicly in a Santiago nightclub. While testimonies conflict, most concur that an enraged Jimenez meted out justice and Pinilla was admitted to hospital with head trauma and neck injuries.

Suitably chastened, he retired from international football at the age of 23 and was rumoured to be considering quitting it altogether, only to reappear at Riccarton the following summer proclaiming a desire to fulfil his contract. However, another series of injuries limited him to just two outings, so it came as some surprise when his agent Hugo Rubio announced the striker would stay at the club for another three years. He did not last three months.

"He was just one of many who came and went during that strange time," McGlynn recalls. "And Vladimir Romanov [Hearts then majority shareholder] had a thing about taking a chance on people who'd had problems elsewhere. He was dynamite at times in training but he never fulfilled his potential at Hearts. Whether that was because of off-the-field stuff or injury I don't know but on his day he was a terrific player."

Indeed, Jamie MacDonald, who was a young goalkeeper breaking through at Hearts at that time, recalls a brawny forward who could finish with both feet. "He seemed to be one of these boys who, if he fancied it, could do anything but more often than not he didn't."

Certainly, Pinilla arrived with a fine pedigree. A goal-laden introduction to senior football at Universidad de Chile earned him a move to Internazionale in 2003, but he failed to make a first-team appearance and was moved on to Sporting Lisbon the following year, after underwhelming loans to Chievo and Celta Vigo.

Again he was unable to make an impact, scoring just five goals before another temporary move, this time to Racing Santander. That was fleeting, too, yet it was still considered something of a coup when the befuddled Chilean arrived at at Tynecastle in July 2006. Like most things at Hearts at that time, the details of the deal were muddled, but it is thought the club paid around £750,000 for a 50% stake in a player still part owned by Inter.

Both clubs relinquished their claims to him, though, and the peripatetic Pinilla washed up at Brazilian club Vasco da Gama and Apollon Limassol in Cyprus before eventually returning to Italy in 2009 to join Serie B side Grosseto. Suddenly something clicked. A tally of 24 goals in 24 games earned him a move to Palermo and, although his finishing faltered a little over the next two seasons, he can boast 22 in 63 since signing for rivals Cagliari.

His contract with the Sardinian club expires this summer but the World Cup gives Pinilla a chance to showcase his talents. Restored to the national team by then coach Marcelo Bielsa in 2010, Pinilla has since taken his tally of caps to 27. However, although he scored his first international goal in nine years in last week's 2-0 win over Northern Ireland and has been awarded the No.9 shirt, he is an unlikely starter.Still, as one of only four forwards in the squad, he will likely have some role to play. "I'm pleasantly surprised by his progress and I'm pleased for the boy that he's reached that standard," said McGlynn.

"Chile are a right good side - they made England look silly last year - so they could surprise a few people." Just like Pinilla has.

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