Quick to move and quick to act, first to the ball and strong in the tackle, dominant in the air, passing well from deep off his left foot, breaking forward with pace and purpose, and a threat in the opposing penalty area.
River Plate coach Ramon Diaz was quick to compare him to 1978 World Cup winning captain Daniel Passarella. For a River Plate centre back, there is no higher accolade. And Diaz, as a former team-mate of Passarella’s, was well placed to pass judgement.
It seemed a mere matter of months before a big money offer came in and Balanta would be sold. There were rumours of interest from Barcelona – and it was easy to see how such a defender could slot into the high line of the Catalan club.
Three years on, we are still waiting. The main problem has been an awful run of injuries, which has messed with the momentum of his career. But there is something else.
Bewitched by his talent, I caught as many of those early games as I could. It was impossible to think of a centre back who was more compelling. But one factor worried me. It was a concern I voiced on the radio when asked about him. At that time he could do no wrong, but no one gets it right all the time. And as a pro-active centre back, he was taking risks. How would he react when things went against him?
There is no such thing as success without failure. It is impossible to judge the true virtues of a team, for example, until they have gone behind and are forced to chase the game. And it is unwise to go overboard on a player until he has had to fight with his way problems in the public glare for the first time.
Eder Alvarez Balanta is currently unrecognisable as the player who made such an impression three years ago. On Friday he was part of the River Plate side that completed their group programme in the Copa Libertadores with a home game against Trujillanos of Venezuela.
The opposition are perhaps the weakest side in the competition. River beat them 4-0 in Venezuela. When they visited Sao Paulo of Brazil they went down 6-0. In this game Trujillanos had a man sent off half way through the first half. But they still managed to lose only by a 4-3 margin – and Balanta was partly responsible for two of the goals they scored.
For the first he was too casual when his centre back colleague Jonathan Maidana played a slack square ball to him. He was not alive to the danger as Gustavo Britos, powered past him and set up the goal.
Towards the end of the game, he was left exposed against a break by right back Manuel Granados, Balanta panicked and pulled back his opponent’s shirt, giving away a silly penalty. He had been left exposed by his full back and left sided midfielder – but this was precisely the type of situation that the Balanta of three years ago was clearing up in such style.
What has happened? Perhaps the injuries have robbed him of a little sharpness. But more pertinent, I think, is the fact that the old conviction has gone. That brash certainty of youth – nothing can possibly go wrong, I can dive in and deal with this situation – has deserted him. His mind now seems clogged up with clouds of doubt.
Balanta’s performance on Firday reminded me a little of England centre back Des Walker in a World Cup qualifier against Holland almost exactly 23 years ago – indeed, exactly two months after Balanta was born. Once so dominant, Walker looked a shadow of his former self that night, giving away a panicky penalty.
He was just 27, until that game he was a fixture in the England side. But his international career was over just a few months later.
What went wrong? Walker’s move from Nottingham Forest to Sampdoria of Italy had not been a success. He started making mistakes and the aura of certainty that followed him around evaporated into thin air.
He played well at club level for several years afterwards, but without ever recapturing the form that made him so impressive in the 1990 World Cup. “You’ll never beat Des Walker,” the fans used to sing. But in those final games for England Walker himself no longer seemed to believe it.
In the case of Eder Alvarez Balanta, this crisis of confidence is happening much earlier in his career. It is a necessary part of a learning curve. How will he respond? This is the true test – because if he can overcome his bad patch, rediscover the conviction of his early displays and marry it to a growing maturity, then greatness could still be within his grasp.