Ayala passes the Albiceleste baton
Sometimes it appears that the fates fail to repay the dedication of many hundreds of quality football players, who have for whatever reason been unable to qualify their on-field greatness with silverware. Even so, their names will forever go down in footballing history thanks to all those who had the privilege to see them play.
One of those names is surely that of Argentina's Roberto Fabian Ayala, who announced his international retirement days after his country's defeat against Brazil in the final of the Copa America Venezuela 2007. However, neither the resounding 3-0 scoreline or the decisive own goal he scored appear to have been factors: "I took this decision a long time ago and it doesn't have anything to do with what happened against Brazil. I just think that every cycle comes to an end and my time with the national team is no different."
His departure leaves a void at the back that Argentina are sure to find difficult to fill. Read on for more about what made El Raton (The Mouse) one of the most admired defenders on the world stage.
Like father like son
Ayala was born in Parana, in the region of Entre Rios, on 14 April 1973. Curiously enough, the young Roberto was not overly keen on the beautiful game: "My friends used to play football all the time, but I didn't think it was much fun," he has said on more than one occasion. Despite this initial lack of enthusiasm, by the age of 15 he was playing alongside his father in defence for Atletico Parana, where he would take the first steps in his professional career.
In 1990, the gifted defender enjoyed a successful trial at Ferro Carril Oeste, going on to make his top flight debut two years later under the tutelage of Carlos Timoteo Griguol. He quickly showed the aptitudes that made him such a superb libero: pace, impeccable defensive timing and outstanding aerial ability, despite measuring in at just 1.77 metres (5ft 9.7ins).
In 1994 his path would cross with that of Daniel Alberto Passarella, then coach of River Plate, changing his career for ever. It was El Gran Capitan who brought Ayala to Los Millonarios and who, after taking the national team reins, would give him his first international call-up. On 16 November 1994, the emerging defender made his debut for Argentina in a friendly match against fellow South Americans Chile.
Ayala soon became an integral member of Passarella's Albiceleste set-up. He was one of three overage players that accompanied the U-23 side to the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Atlanta 1996, picking up a silver medal after the team's 3-2 final defeat against tournament sensations Nigeria. However, the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ would bring with it one of his most painful experiences in the blue-and-white of Argentina. Ayala was the man left floundering as Dutch maestro Dennis Bergkamp scored the goal that gave Netherlands a 2-1 quarter-final win.
The France 1998 exit paled in comparison to the losses of both his mother and sister that very same year. Showing incredible strength of character, Ayala redoubled his efforts to win a regular starting place at AC Milan, who had signed him for around $10 million (7.3 million euros) from Napoli. Though first-team minutes continued to elude him at the Rossoneri, Ayala was delighted to receive the call from Marcelo Bielsa, Passarella's successor in the Argentina hotseat. "The national team always gave me an extra dose of motivation," said the player himself.
Further disappointment followed at the Copa America Paraguay 1999, where Argentina were knocked out at the quarter-final stage by eternal rivals Brazil, Ayala having a late penalty saved by Dida. Worse was to come at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, Ayala falling injured in the warm-up prior to his side's opener against Nigeria and having to watch the team's first-round exit from the sidelines. The rugged defender, however, proved one of the under-fire Bielsa's staunchest supporters: "You can see that the job means absolutely everything to him. I think that he should carry on."
Thus, El Loco Bielsa earned a stay of execution at the helm of the Albiceleste, contributing to a rollercoaster 2004 for Ayala and his team-mates. After a series of outstanding displays at that year's Copa America in Peru, old foes Brazil once more undid Argentina. Leading the final 2-1 with just moments remaining, Auriverde striker Adriano outmanoeuvred Ayala to grab a last-gasp equaliser, which preceded the Brazilians emerging triumphant after extra-time and penalties. The Men's Olympic Football Tournament at Athens 2004 would bring some measure of relief, Bielsa inviting the experienced defender to take part in his second Olympic Games. The decision paid off, Ayala captaining Argentina to the gold medal. "It's the happiest moment of my international career," he said afterwards.
Bielsa's subsequent departure came as something of a shock, and was followed by Ayala spending a lengthy spell out of action through injury. Under new national team coach Jose Pekerman, he recovered his rightful place at the heart of the Argentinian defence, although he was no longer team captain. He continued to lead by example, however, opening the scoring against the host nation in the quarter-finals of Germany 2006. He was less precise with his spot-kick after the tie had gone to penalties, his effort one of two saved by Mannschaft keeper Jens Lehmann. After yet another last eight exit, a dejected Ayala vowed that: "I'll only stop dreaming of (being successful with) the national team on the day I retire from football."
Time to go
One year on, at the age of 34 and still a regular under current Argentina supremo Alfio Basile, Real Zaragoza's new signing has had a change of heart. Despite having never won a title with the senior side, he has left an indelible stamp on Argentinian football. His 115 caps are a national record (43 under Passarella, 48 under Bielsa, 14 under Pekerman and ten under Alfio Basile), while he has played a record 40 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and ten matches at the finals themselves. Nor has anybody worn the captain's armband on more occasions, Ayala's tally of 64 even higher than Diego Armando Maradona's total of 57.
"It's an honour, a real pleasure and very moving to know that I've accumulated those kinds of numbers. But my heart tells me that I'd change any record or individual landmark for a trophy. Even so, I know that over time, when I look back on my experiences with the national team, I can't fail to be thrilled with those statistics."