Hardened Gonzalo Higuain returns to exorcise his tournament ghosts

Words by Adam Digby Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 15, 2018
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Sitting on a football during a break in Argentina’s latest training session, Gonzalo Higuain looked in a pensive mood. Perhaps he was thinking about the World Cup that was looming just over the horizon. The Albiceleste’s first game against Iceland merely days away as Coach Jorge Sampaoli put his players through their paces at the team’s base at the Bronnitsy Training Center in Moscow. Or maybe his mind was on those shocking misses at or the Maracanã, Santiago’s Estadio Nacional or the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.

Thanks to the Netflix docu-series “First Team: Juventus,” we’ve learned it could well be the latter. The first few episodes of that show revealed a side to Higuain that has rarely been exposed to the general public, a sensitivity and vulnerability that the 30-year-old had previously kept private. With that knowledge of his character, it is not difficult to imagine that those squandered chances in the 2014 World Cup Final, the 2015 Copa America and then the centenary edition twelve months later, must have taken their toll, as must carrying the blame for Argentina’s failure to win any of those three tournaments.

As kickoff in Russia draws ever closer, Lionel Messi continues to grow older and his window to lift international silverware shrinks, the significance of Higuain’s role in Argentina’s trophy drought cannot be understated. He has been singled out both in his homeland and across the wider footballing world, labelled a choker who fails to deliver in the key moments and a player who cannot be relied upon when it truly matters.

Yet while he still routinely features in the no.9 role for his country and has largely the same team around him, there is clear evidence that the Higuain who takes to the field against Iceland is a very different player to the one who fluffed a one-on-one with Manuel Neuer four years ago. Indeed, little over a month after losing to Chile in the 2016 Copa América Centenario showpiece, he left Napoli for Juve in a record-breaking €90 million move.

On the surface, very little changed. The Bianconeri still dominated Italian football – lifting league-and-cup doubles in each of the two subsequent campaigns – but failed to secure a much-coveted European trophy, while even Napoli remained strong and finished as runners-up in Serie A. Higuain continued to score goals at roughly the same pace too, his tally for Juve currently standing at 55 in 105 appearances. Due to the depth of talent available to Max Allegri in Turin, he was rotated out of the side a little more frequently, resting far more than he had been able to under his previous Coach Maurizio Sarri, but ultimately tasked with spearheading the attack whenever  selected.

However, there is little doubt that the positive environment he found at Juve has had a calming effect. There has been no sign of the tempestuous outbursts that peppered his Napoli tenure, explosions which ultimately culminated in a red card and a suspension during his final campaign with the Partenopei. Of course there is still the occasional outburst at a team-mate’s errant pass – particularly if he is yet to score in a given match – but these are limited to expressing frustration rather than full-blown displays of anger.

His game has also expanded, now working hard off the ball to create space for others or join in the side’s buildup play, something which has clearly delighted his Coach. ”I’m very happy with Gonzalo’s performances,” Allegri told reporters at a pre-match press conference back in April. “Even when he wasn’t scoring, he was still putting in great displays. He is a role model for the other players.”

Perhaps as a result of this newfound serenity, or maybe simply by virtue of being surrounded by winners, Higuain has not only stopped complaining and remonstrating, he’s started scoring in big matches too. He opened his Juve account with a goal against bitter rivals Fiorentina, and has since struck twice more against the Viola and Milan, while repeatedly crushing his former club.

A tally of five goals in six games against Napoli has delighted the big striker after a bitter war of words with owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, while he also scored the winner in a clash with Inter that ultimately decided the 2017/18 Scudetto. He has shone in Europe too, a brace against Monaco securing a place in the Champions League Final last term while he struck three times in two legs versus Tottenham to help the Old Lady reach this season’s quarterfinals.

Combining a potent mix of physical strength, technical skill and an innate sense of where he is on the pitch with a burning desire to get his name on the scoresheet have always been his strong points, but over the last two years he has become a calmer, more confident player who seems to always believe he will score.

But, just like Pippo Inzaghi or David Trezeguet before him, he still celebrates every goal with unbridled passion whether he has tapped it in or picked out the top corner from 30 yards. He expects to score and, as the son of former River Plate stalwart Jorge Higuain, was born with huge expectations on his shoulders. “I always wanted that,” the younger Higuaín told Spanish newspaper El Mundo last year. “That’s why I play football. Someone who can’t feel this pressure does not love this sport. Football is constant pressure, from day to day. You need to know how to live with that.”

It seems his time in Turin has taught him how to do so, adding a veneer which might now be his most vital weapon: a mental toughness that was clearly lacking in previous years. Argentina could well benefit this summer as Gonzalo Higuain looks to slay the ghosts of tournaments past.

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