Thursday 03 March 2016, 14:16

Argentina's future in safe hands with Rulli

"You were never a goalkeeper and you know nothing about the position. You can talk to me about any of the ten outfield players, but you can't say anything about me. Stick to what you know about, not what you don't."

Geronimo Rulli was just ten or maybe 11-years-old when he uttered these words. Now 23, the Real Sociedad goalkeeper may be unsure about his exact age at the time, but vividly remembers giving this response to his coach during his first proper match, wearing gloves and baggy black trousers. Those in earshot could not believe it, let alone the coach in question, his father Omar Rulli.

"I was right!" the Argentinian told, with the youthful candour he would display throughout the interview. If it had been his idol, Paraguayan legend Jose Luis Chilavert, dishing out the advice, or his other role model, the anime keeper Benji Price , well then it would have been a different story. His father, though, had never made a save in his life.

"From that moment on he never said anything like that to me again," the young shot-stopper went on, a trace of pride in his voice. "Even back then I had a strong character."

This personality is just one of the many attributes that prompted Argentina head coach Gerardo Martino to offer a categorical verdict about the lad from La Plata: "Rulli will probably be the national team keeper for the next ten years. Barring any strange happenings, that ought to be the case." Martino made these comments just after leaving Rulli out of the squad for the Copa America in Chile last year. "It's evenly matched now , so other factors come into play," he added by way of an explanation for a decision that appeared at odds with his prediction.

Building on Lux and Romero's legacy 2016, however, offers a massive opportunity for Rulli to put the disappointment of missing out in Chile behind him: the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016. The unanimous view in Argentina is that Rulli, who turns 24 in May, will feature in the competition, taking one of the three spots in the squad available for players aged over 23. "I love sport and being at the Olympic Games or the World Cup is the pinnacle of what a footballer can aspire to. It must be an incredible atmosphere to play in and to share in with other sports. It would be a dream for me to be there and win a medal."

The Albiceleste did not make it to London 2012, but claimed gold in 2004 and 2008, with their goalkeepers playing a stellar role in these triumphs. German Lux did not concede at all in Athens, while in Beijing, Sergio Romero sowed the seeds for what he has become today: the most capped No1 in Argentinian history.

Does Rulli harbour hopes of replicating such success despite never making an international appearance at youth level and having only once been called up to the senior squad? "There's always reason to believe with the national team. There are great players who, despite being under 23, have already gone a long way in football. Argentina should always be favourites for any competition they're playing in and I have no doubts it'll be the same in Rio. However, if I want to be involved, I have to perform well for my club. Here's hoping I can keep up what I've been doing in recent games and the call-up comes."

A call for help It is no coincidence that Rulli is not getting ahead of himself. Having impressed consistently from his debut for Estudiantes in 2013 through to his maiden season with Real Sociedad in 2014-15, the start of the current campaign was different, right down to his clothes. From a young age he had always worn black trousers – it is "a question of comfort", as he put it – but he was forced to start sporting shorts because the Spanish club brought out a kit in a different colour. The rules require that goalkeepers' tops and bottoms be of the same hue. "I found it difficult. I tried to make up for it with long tights, but it didn't feel the same. It took me a while to get used to it. My shorts kept riding up and down."

Rulli is adamant that this change "had nothing to do with it", but it so happens that it coincided with his first run of erratic form since his professional breakthrough. "I was coming off a year in which everything was going for me, whereas this time round things were a lot tougher. I kept trying to do my best but there were times when things weren't going my way. There were balls that I was finding it difficult to deal with when before I'd have handled them easily. Everything was twice as hard."

He hit rock bottom in November, following a 2-0 defeat away to Las Palmas. "It was one of my worst-ever performances, I was really worried afterwards." His immediate response was to call his family, girlfriend and agent from Gran Canaria. "I don't know what's happening to me. I have no confidence and I need you here," he told them. "Luckily they came and it was a shot in the arm. After that, the tide began to turn."

In his more recent displays, Rulli has looked much more like his old self, in his words, a goalkeeper who "always stays calm when making decisions". Nevertheless, that is not to say his game has not changed. "I've analysed my last few matches for Estudiantes and I'm a completely different keeper now. Since I've been at La Real I've been much more assured; I spill the ball less. As you get used to different ways of working, you see the difference when matches come around. The biggest is knowing what to do in situations that maybe I didn't before. Playing for two years against these colossuses, with the tempo they play at, makes you a better goalie."

Given these improvements, he remains hopeful of getting a chance for his country and of seizing it in the manner Martino suggested he is capable of: "If I'm handed another opportunity, I'm going to try not to let it slip ever again."

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