Franco Armani has never played for the senior Argentina team before, yet he could be the goalkeeper tasked with keeping out enough goals at the World Cup to allow Lionel Messi’s magic at the other end to mean something. His debut is expected to come in the Albiceleste’s final warm-up game against Israel on Saturday, but he will not go to Russia with more than one cap to his name.
So how has Armani made it to the front row of the grid in the nation’s goalkeeping race? He didn’t even take any part in qualifying, only making his first ever Argentina squad last month.
Well, the 31-year-old shot-stopper has put together a truly sensational first half of 2018 and has made a late surge up the Argentine goalkeeping depth chart, earning his ticket to Russia based on wonderful form.
The man from Santa Fe came through the Estudiantes youth system, but forged a career in the sport in Colombia after moving to Atlético Nacional in 2010. He played eight years in Medellín and became a fan favourite, struggling at first before finding God and changing his outlook on life. He spent his final four years there as the undisputed starter after compatriot Gastón Pezzuti’s exit and made a name for himself in South American football as a top shot-stopper with rapid reactions. It was with Armani in goal that the club won the 2016 Copa Libertadores, one of the Argentine’s 13 titles with the club, making him their most decorated player ever.
So impressed were the Colombian FA with his performances in their league that there was talk of nationalising Armani and making him eligible to travel to Russia with Los Cafeteros. Instead, he was brought back to Argentina at the beginning of 2018, with River Plate playing a fee of around €3m euros. Now he will go to the World Cup, but with his home nation.
Back in Argentina, he hit the ground running… and saving. One of Armani’s first major matches with his new club was a SuperClásico against Boca Juniors with a trophy on the line, the Argentine Super Cup. River Plate took the contest 2-0, but Armani was kept busy and his performance was vital in winning the title. He was so vital, in fact, that he was made man of the match, literally being coroneted with a plastic golden crown from sponsors Burger King.
As ridiculous as that moment was, perhaps it did symbolise a changing of the guard. That performance and his other displays for River Plate – he kept clean sheets in 13 of his 21 matches and has saved 52 of 62 shots at his goal – started a conversation in Argentina. Why isn’t this guy a contender to start for the selección, for the national team? Why is it assumed is should be one of Sergio Romero or Willy Caballero, two Premier League backups? The 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Spain, during which Caballero was especially poor, only furthered the debate.
While starting Armani would be a risk, there is a sense that Argentina must be bold and roll the dice if they’re to have any chance of going all the way. As former national team goalkeeper Luis Islas put it on TyC Sports several weeks ago, “Based on his current form, Armani has to start at the World Cup, even if you do have to think about it a lot because we don’t know how he would respond with the national team”.
The knee injury suffered by Romero, the regular starter since 2010, in May then made a fresh change at the goalkeeper position a reality, rather than a fan fantasy. It’s heartbreaking for Sergio Romero as he approaches 100 caps, but it’s not that much of a loss, was the general consensus.
For now, Caballero is the most experienced goalkeeper in the squad and the one who Jorge Sampaoli has said is the front-runner to start, but it hasn’t been ruled out that Armani – who has a good relationship with Sampaoli, as they both hail from the same town of Casilda – could be the starter by the time of the first match against Iceland on June 16th. “He has started training well and the decision will be made a little further down the line,” Olé have reported.
Even if Armani has a good relationship with Caballero, he is determined to battle with the Chelsea goalkeeper for that honour. “Being on the 23-man list fills me with pride, but I’m not satisfied with that,” he recently told Radio 10. “I have prepared myself in the best way possible and I want to get an opportunity at the World Cup.”
The previous two times Argentina won the World Cup they did so with a goalkeeper from River Plate starting in goals, Ubaldo Fillol in 1978 and then Nery Pumpido in 1986. If Armani keeps pushing and becomes the starter in Russia, the omens suggest there might soon be a third star on the blue and white shirt.