By Manuel Veth –
It was the 2014 World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro, between Germany and Argentina. Germany’s national team player, Toni Kroos, received a long ball from defence. But instead of playing the ball to either of the German defenders Mats Hummels or Jérôme Boateng the ball landed at Gonzalo Higuaín, who was able to run alone towards Manuel Neuer’s goal.
Under normal circumstances this would be a sure goal, and the stadium held its breath, as Higuaín prepared to fire his Argentina ahead. As the moment slowed down, the world watched Higuaín fire his shot passed Neuer, but instead of going into the net, the ball went wide.
Instead of Higuaín, it was Mario Götze, who became immortal, as he scored the game winning goal for Germany in the 113th minute.
Higuaín Could Have won the Copa América for Argentina
One year later in Chile, at the Copa América final against Chile, Higuaín once again missed a great chance to put his Argentina ahead. It was the 120th minute in extra time that Higuaín received the ball in front of the empty net, but instead of scoring the goal that would finally break the spell and win the first trophy for his country since 1993, Higuaín’s shot hit the side netting—he would later also miss a penalty.
Then, in the United States, at the Copa América Centenario final against Chile this summer, Higuaín once again had the chance to put his country ahead. In the 20th minute Higuaín stole the ball from Chile’s defence, and ran completely unguarded toward Chile’s goal. With only Chile’s goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo, in the way, it appeared to be a sure goal. But instead of rounding the Chilean keeper, Higuaín decided to chip the ball over the outstretched keeper, and the ball rolled past the abandoned goal.
Once again Chile beat Argentina in the penalty shootout, and Argentina went into crisis mode, as the country’s superstar Lionel Messi announced his retirement from the national team. A meme following the match suggested that Messi would never win a cup as long as Higuaín played for La Albiceleste (as the national team is called by its fans).
Higuaín Broke the Goalscoring Record This Season
Of course the meme didn’t do Higuaín justice, as he has countless times proven that he is an amazing goal scorer. In fact, last season he scored 36 goals in 35 matches to equal a record set by Gino Rossetti back in the 1928-29 Divisione Nazionale season—a league that was divided regionally into two groups.
No striker has scored more goals in a single season—the previous record was held by the Swede, Gunnar Nordahl, who scored 34 goals in the 1950-51 season—since the establishment of the Serie A in 1930. Yet the tarnish of the missed goals in the finals against Germany, and the two times against Chile remained.
In Napoli, however, no one cared about Higuaín’s failures with the national team. In fact, the Argentinian was a god in the city, and received a level of hype not seen since the days when his fellow countryman Diego Maradona had played for Napoli from 1984-1991. Led by Maradona, Napoli won its first ever Italian championship in 1987, an event that would have a massive impact on Italy’s poorest region.
Higuaín Could Have Become the new Maradona
David Goldblatt in his book The Ball is Round wrote: “The celebrations were tumultuous. A rolling series of impromptu street parties and festivities broke out contagiously across the city in a round-the-clock carnival which ran for a week. The world was turned upside down. The Neapolitans held mock funerals to [the northern league rivals] Juventus and Milan, burning their coffins, their death notices announcing ‘May 1987, the other Italy has been defeated. A new empire is born.”
With Maradona, Napoli would win a second league title in 1990, the Coppa Italia in 1987, and the UEFA Cup in 1989. The Argentinian became a legend in the city, and despite numerous scandals towards the end of his time in Southern Italy, remains a legend in the city. Even today, when one walks through Napoli, Maradona appears omnipresent, especially as the club never came close to copying the success it achieved in the late 1980s when one of the greatest players on the planet played for the club.
The 1990s and early 2000s, in fact, were tough times for Napoli supporters, as the club declined and even went bankrupt in August 2004. With the help of the film producer, Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli were able to re-establish themselves, as he registered the club as Napoli Soccer in the Serie C1 (third division at the time), and helped finance the club’s return to the Serie A. In 2006, the club was able to buy back its old name SSC Napoli and, in 2013, the team finished second and, once again, became one of Italy’s elite clubs.
Thanks to Higuaín Napoli Dared to Dream
Last season, thanks to the goals of Higuaín, Napoli appeared to be ready to challenge for the title once more. In December 2015, the club reached the top of the table for the first time in 25 years. Ultimately Juventus, however, proved too strong a competitor for Napoli, as the North Italians once again won the title.
Yet, with Higuaín in their midst, Napoli fans believed that they could chase Juventus in the upcoming season and finally bring the title back to Southern Italy. But shortly after breaking Argentina’s heart, Higuaín also shocked Napoli by announcing that he would leave the club.
He then added insult to injury by joining Juventus Turin, who had activated his €90 million exit clause on July 26, thereby becoming the third highest football transfer of all-time and highest ever for an Italian club.
Napoli supporters, who flooded the social networks with pictures in which they burned their Higuaín shirts, flushed them down the toilet, or cut them up, greeted the move with shock and disdain. The Guardian meanwhile wrote that the transfer would “lead us into the theatre of the absurd.” Rob Smyth wrote for the Guardian: “football burns money for a laugh. The transfer market has become such big business there are times when the actual football feels almost secondary.”
1 image tells the entire story of the level of hatred there is in Naples towards Higuain pic.twitter.com/uxgWu8EywZ
— Darren Insigne (@SSCNapoliCurvaA) July 28, 2016
FACT: Gonzalo Higuain isn't a very popular man in Napoli right now. pic.twitter.com/JbiAXCFNjr
— BBC Sporf (@BBCSporf) July 26, 2016
Yes, the 35 goals last season have highlighted that Higuaín is an extraordinary striker but, at the same time, Higuaín has not only shown a lack of scoring when it matters, but also misled Napoli, a city that like no other is guided by emotions, into believing that they could dare to dream. But not just Napoli, all of Italy hoped that this season would be different in that a team could finally push Juventus from the throne—the North Italians have now won five titles in a row.
Yet, Juventus can’t be blamed for wanting to secure the striker, as a football club always has to look out for their own interests. Roma legend Francesco Totti, who has now played 25 seasons for his club, believes that Higuaín’s transfer “is a disaster.” “Footballers today are a bit like nomads,” Totti told Gazzetta World. “They follow money and not their hearts. Maybe that is the difference between me and all the others.”
Modern Football Transfers: A Culture of Betrayal?
Totti further believes that the culture of changing clubs on a whim will destroy football fan culture: “People go to the stadiums to enjoy themselves and to see, in action, players who will always be with their team. They expect not to be betrayed.”
Totti on Higuain's move to Juventus pic.twitter.com/wyLvvqswr0
— GeniusFootball (@GeniusFootball) July 28, 2016
Perhaps the nostalgia is misplaced, and perhaps it is unfair to Higuaín to label him as a symbol of a very common phenomenon that detatches players from the very fan base that is fundamental for the multi-billion industry that football has become. At the same time, part of the magic of football is the fact that fans can dare to dream that their smaller team can challenge the giants of the sport, and win.
Higuaín’s transfer shows that dreams often become nightmares as, increasingly, the biggest legends tend to disappoint their fan base, which increases the danger that fans, football’s biggest resource, could grow detached from the game.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.