By Cameron Dickinson
There have been few players to stand out during the opening week or so of the World Cup. Indeed only one player has caught the world’s attention – Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain.
The Argentine has timed his rise to prominence to perfection, and, now, with the Albiceleste qualified for the Round of 16, he has reached the peak of his young career.
For all of Leo Messi’s brilliance, there needs to be a player in the right place at the right time to finish off his wizardry. Thus far, Higuain has been just that. He bagged a hat trick against South Korea in his last outing before manager Diego Maradona awarded him a much-earned day off in Argentina’s final game of the Group Stage – a 2-0 win over Greece on Tuesday.
This ability in front of the goal has come at the perfect time for Maradona’s side as it continues to wrestle the favorites tag from Spain and Brazil to become the team to beat at this summer’s finals.
It will come as no surprise to those who watch La Liga, or Real Madrid at least, that this 22-year-old striker has emerged as the top scorer in South Africa. Last season he bagged 27 goals in 32 league appearances – beaten in the scorer charts only by the “out of form” Messi.
He is no one-season wonder, however, as in 2008-09 he also topped the 20 barrier comfortably, and all this well before he reaches his peak as a soccer player.
It is not all about his goals though. There is much more to the former River Plate man than timely goals – although that would be more than enough for Maradona. Higuain set up a load of goals for his teammates at the Bernabeu, showing that his build-up play is every bit as useful as his finishing ability. He also has pace to burn, which is a huge asset to his side when it needs to turn defense into attack quickly.
But it is predatory ability that has seen him forge ahead of the likes of Champions League final scorer Diego Milito to claim the lone striker role for Argentina. He has been compared to Michael Owen (when he was good anyway) in that his ability in front of goal is deadly to the opposition, which explains why Maradona has such faith in him.
This wasn’t always the case, however. Going into the World Cup, the Madrid man had only five caps to his name. The eccentric Argentina boss first refused to pick him, preferring the experience of Martin Palermo, playing him only for short stretches.
Incredibly, his position in the squad was in severe doubt a month ago as few could guess what the coach had in mind for South Africa. In fact there were some calls at home for Higuain to be left out as he just was not experienced enough to deal with the pressures of the world’s biggest tournament. Thankfully for Argentina, Maradona ignored the few and listened to the pleas of many.
Three goals from two games so far is Higuain’s personal way of thanking his coach for his faith, and of silencing his doubters back in his home country.
Of course things could have been very different for the striker had he chosen France as his nation like David Trezeguet had before him.
He was eligible to play international football for Les Bleus due to the fact he born in Brest in Northern France and was very, very close to picking them over Argentina after being called up to the French squad in November 2006 to play against Greece. He even received the No. 26 shirt – previously worn by Trezeguet – before he decided that he needed more time before committing to one nation.
A full three years later, after much deliberating, he chose the Argentines and then played a part in the final two South American qualifying games against Peru and Uruguay, scoring a crucial goal in his debut against Peru in a 2-1 win.
Since then, his role has increased gradually to the point where he is an almost indispensable member of the starting 11, though he knows he has some quality players breathing down his neck for that place.
Of course being only the third Argentine to score a hat trick (after Guillermo Stábile in 1930 and Gabriel Batistuta in 1994 and 1998) at a World Cup final certainly helps his cause. This will fill him with confidence at a crucial time as the tournament reaches the knockout stages, and that’s when his ability to handle the pressure will really tell.
It has been a fantastic journey for Higuain, from not even being considered for the squad a year ago to now being the primary benefactor for Messi’s genius. Time will tell whether he can be named alongside the likes of Ronaldo, Gerd Muller and Gary Lineker as one of the great international strikers. His performances in the remainder of the tournament will determine whether he can reach that status, but it cannot be forgotten that he is just 22. So, even if he fails this time, he will almost certainly have another couple of chances to secure his greatness and for his opponents that is perhaps the scariest thing of all about him.
Cameron Dickinson is a contributing writer for The National Game. His column appears with written consent.