Ever since Sergio Goycochea hung up his gloves back in 1994, the goalkeeping slot has proved something of a conundrum for Argentina. While there have been no shortage of candidates over the years, none have been able to stake a compelling claim as the country's undisputed No1.
All that could be about to change, however. The latest pretender to the crown, River Plate's young shot-stopper Juan Pablo Carrizo, has seemingly achieved the impossible by gaining the approval of an entire nation. At long last, the Albicelestes' search for a safe pair of hands would appear to be over.
Praised by journalists, coaches and fellow players alike, Carrizo has come to the fore just as current incumbents Roberto Abbondanzieri and Oscar Ustari have suffered a dip in form on club duty with Spain's Getafe. Widely tipped to become one of the few home-based players to earn a place in Alfio Basile's squad for the June qualifiers against Ecuador and Brazil, can the youngster now kick on make the No1 spot his own?
Brimming with personality
Aside from his undoubted technical abilities, one thing that sets Carrizo apart is his larger-than-life character, an asset he used to great effect as the captain of River's youth teams, ensuring his rapid ascension to first-choice status.
Handed his Millonarios debut by Daniel Alberto Passarella on 29 January 2006, within a short space of time the novice was keeping previous incumbent German Lux out of the team. Passarella's decision was a controversial one but a string of exceptional performances by the young keeper showed the then coach had got it right.
"I've got a few goalkeeping role models but my favourite keeper is Oliver Kahn," says the man from Santa Fe. " ."
And like his German idol, Carrizo has proved he can rise to the occasion. Since making his debut in the Argentinian top flight, the 23-year-old has featured in eight Superclásicos against city rivals Boca Juniors, emerging victorious in six of them - one on penalties - losing one and drawing the other, a game in which he earned top marks in all the national dailies.
Thanks to his innate positional sense, superb reflexes and commanding presence in the air, he quickly came to the attention of Serie A side Lazio, who sealed his transfer in July 2007. A lengthy delay in obtaining an EU passport, however, means the new signing will not be able to join the Roman giants until the end of the Clausura championship and the Copa Libertadores.
South African dreams
Although he travelled with Argentina to the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela, Carrizo did not see any action at the tournament. But in making his full debut in a friendly against Chile last April, he was singled out by the press as his side's stand-out player.
"You really need to be on your guard when you're playing in goal for Argentina," he explains. "Other teams don't tend to attack that much against us, so when they do come forward you have to be ready."
One seasoned international impressed with the young keeper's seamless transition to the spotlight is Juan Roman Riquelme. "Carrizo is the best keeper in the country," says the Boca Juniors playmaker. "We were on Argentina duty together and I have to say even though he plays for River, he's definitely out of the ordinary."
Although no relation to the rising star, Amadeo Carrizo, the legendary River Plate goalkeeper and a veteran of Sweden 1958, is another confirmed fan. "Juan Pablo has got everything it takes to become a great keeper. He's the best and he's doing the surname proud."
And adding his name to the growing list of admirers is no less an authority than Ubaldo Fillol, Argentina's goalkeeping coach and a world champion in 1978. " ."
As Carrizo's statistics in the current league campaign show, the adulation is well merited. In 17 games so far this season he has conceded just 12 goals, and a mere four in 11 Clausura outings. His average rating in the national newspapers is the highest in the championship, and at one stage of the season he went 596 minutes without conceding a goal. Add to that his uncanny ability to save penalty kicks, and it is easy to see why he has been fast-tracked to the top at club and international level.
"I just hope I can fulfil my dream to be Argentina's first choice keeper at the World Cup. To achieve that, though, I need to keep working hard." Assuming he does, his fan club will surely grow at South Africa 2010.