Still only 22, the Argentina centre-forward Gonzalo Higuain is taking part in his second FIFA World Cup™ finals. The Real Madrid man was a non-playing member of Jose Pekerman’s squad at Germany 2006, although he was not the first member of his family to have links with the game’s showpiece tournament. His father Jorge Nicolas, a former player himself, was at France 1998, spying on La Albiceleste’s opponents for the then national coach Daniel Passarella.
“We stopped off at a relative’s house and we were watching from the stands the day Argentina beat England,” he says of his first FIFA World Cup experience as a young boy.
Higuain has very close links with France. Born in the northern city of Brest, he had the chance to play for Les Bleus but turned down their invitation in favour of his beloved Argentina, a decision he has had no cause to regret. “It was an unusual situation but my mind was always set on playing for Argentina,” he explains. “Fortunately, time has proved me right and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.”
Higuain made his first finals outing against Nigeria last Saturday, and the only thing missing from El Pipita’s typically alert performance was a goal. Yet although he spurned a couple of presentable chances, he is not losing any sleep over his goalless start. “The most important thing for a striker is to have goalscoring opportunities and I had some,” he comments. “The rest is just a question of destiny. I’m sure the goals will come and I hope it’s against Korea Republic.”
The Taeguk Warriors are Argentina’s next opponents at Soccer City in Johannesburg on Thursday, a formidable challenge in Higuain’s opinion: “Anyone who saw them beat Greece will know they’re tough opponents. They are physically strong, agile and they run a lot. We’ll definitely need to put in a very good performance. Let’s see if it’ll be enough for us to go through.”
The young striker’s eyes light up when up when the conversation turns to national coach Diego Maradona. “He’s a great motivator, there’s no doubt about that. He’s a very good coach and he couldn’t be doing better. Who wouldn’t be happy to play under him?”
A sign of the empathy between player and coach came at the end of the 1-0 defeat of Nigeria, when El Diez made a point of coming on to the pitch and giving Higuain a hug as he came off. “That’s the way he is,” he says gratefully. “He keeps everybody happy and confident. That’s a great virtue and it’s one I appreciate a lot.”
“We know we still have to improve in some areas but we’ve also managed to get an important win under our belts,” continues Higuain, aware of the hard work he and his team-mates still have to put in and of the need to answer their critics.
“Our hope is that things will go even better against Korea (Republic) and that we can reach the next round. We are not interested in the people who didn’t have faith in us. All that matters is what we as a team think. We are very solid and strong and that’s what counts.”
Asked to set out his objectives in South Africa, the goal-hungry forward has only one in mind: “We are a great side that’s going all out to win the World Cup. There’s a long way to go but we hope to do just that.”
And should he start getting among the goals, Higuain could be the very man to fire them to the pinnacle.