River youngster making waves

Handed the task of masterminding Argentina's defence of their Olympic crown at the forthcoming Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, coach Sergio Batista has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal. And while the lion's share of press coverage has gone to established stars such as Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Juan Roman Riquelme, El Checho, a FIFA World Cup™ winner in 1986, has several less well-known aces up his sleeve.

Perhaps the brightest of these up-and-coming talents is River Plate's versatile attacker Diego Buonanotte, who has caught the eye after playing a vital role in Los Millonarios' recent Argentinian Clausura title success. Small in stature, technically gifted and a wonderful finisher, the boy from Teodelina, Santa Fe, is preparing to take August's Olympic event by storm.

A difficult start
Back in 2006, Hector Pitarch, the co-ordinator of River Plate's youth divisions, almost single-handedly whipped up a storm of expectation with the words "River might not have Messi, but we've got Buonanotte." Indeed, the player was singled out by the team's kit manufacturer for their most high-profile advertising campaigns, even before making his top flight debut.

In the long run, however, the hype only served to heap further pressure on Buonanotte's young shoulders. "Since I made my debut, I've not been able to get a run in the side. I think that all the talk when I was starting out has made it difficult for me," said the player himself.

"I've been compared with Messi, and I'm not even a quarter of the player he is. He's an established star like Aguero or [Pablo] Aimar, while I've only just begun," added the diminutive sharpshooter, who weighed in at just 54 kgs at the time of his debut in April 2006.

All that would change come late 2007. With El Gran Capitán Daniel Passarella at the Millonarios helm, a beefed-up Buonanotte began forcing his way into the first-team picture. This trend would continue after the appointment of Diego Simeone as coach in 2008, as the youngster grew into one of the team's key men.

Able to play in attacking midfield, out wide or in a withdrawn forward's role, he was River's top scorer with nine goals in their march to the Clausura 2008 trophy, including a brace in the 2-1 win against Olimpo that sealed the title. In a total of just 26 league appearances in the white and red shirt, Buonanotte has now scored an impressive 11 times.

China on my mind
Buonanotte's early adventures in an Argentina jersey were less than satisfying, with the River man part of the Albiceleste U-17 squad that failed to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005. "That was a very sad experience because there are always high expectations surrounding Argentinian youth teams," said the player earlier this year. "Hopefully I'll get another chance in the future."

And barring illness or injury, his chance should come in August's showpiece on Chinese soil. "He's had a fantastic season, of course he's in our plans for Beijing," said coach Batista in the wake of River's league success.

Blessed with pace, verve, a cool head and an uncanny knack of beating the keeper in one-on-one situations, the Estadio Monumental faithful see in him a worthy successor to Millonarios legends such as Ariel Ortega, Hernan Crespo, Andres D'Alessandro, Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola.

Nor have his displays gone unnoticed on the other side of the Atlantic, though the President of the Buenos Aires club, Jose Maria Aguilar, was quick to pour cold water on any speculation: "Diego's just 20 years old and he's a priceless talent. He is not for sale."

Regardless of where his future lies at club level, Buonanotte's most pressing concern is helping his country defend the Olympic title won at Athens 2004. "A while ago I couldn't even have imagined being involved at the Games, and now I'm getting ready to battle for a gold medal," says the modest youngster. "It all happened really fast and it wasn't easy," added Buonanotte, most definitely a player to watch this August.