At first glance there does not appear to be anything particularly remarkable about ‘Angelito’ Correa, given his small frame, lightweight physique and bashful nature. Yet that perception changes when he has a ball at his feet, at which point the Rosario native is capable of anything – including silencing a crowded Estadio Centenario in Montevideo.
With nine minutes remaining in the 2015 South American U-20 Championship final, a burst of speed took Correa free of his marker, allowing him to receive the ball, turn, nutmeg a defender and poke an effort past the Uruguayan goalkeeper into the net. His goal sealed a come-from-behind victory for Argentina, helping them to the title for the first time in 12 years.
“Everything was against us but we had a good tournament and fortunately we were able to win, which was great,” Correa told FIFA.com. It was especially gratifying for the Argentinian in light of the uncertainty and suffering he had endured in the preceding six months: “I hadn’t played for a long time. I’d never been sidelined for that long with an injury or anything, so I was delighted to be playing football again.”
Six months previously a tumour had been detected in Correa’s heart that forced him to undergo surgery and almost ended his promising career. “At the time of my operation I kept thinking that if I couldn’t continue playing it would be a really big blow for me and my family,” he said. Furthermore, the bad news arrived at a time when things were just coming together for the youngster: he was a step away from winning the coveted Copa Libertadores with San Lorenzo and was poised to move to Europe to join Atletico Madrid.
Although he was unable to participate in El Ciclon’s triumph on the pitch, nor make his debut for Atleti that season, everything has turned out well for the seemingly ever-optimistic Correa. “It was difficult but I also think that if I’d continued playing something bad could have happened to me,” he said. “Luckily they found the tumour just in time.” He breaks into a broad smile when asked if his outlook is always so positive: “I always say that the bad things I’ve been through have happened to make me stronger.”
Family and the Simeones
Indeed, life has been anything but easy for the attacker. He left his hometown Rosario aged just 12 to join San Lorenzo, and also had to deal with the deaths of his father and one of his brothers. The support his mother Marcela gave him was therefore vital in helping Correa pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
And now, having overcome illness and after showcasing his talents at the continental U-20 Championship in February, where he was voted Player of the Tournament, Marcela will once again be cheering her son on as he faces his next challenge: captaining Argentina to a seventh FIFA U-20 World Cup title. “My mum and my youngest brother are going to New Zealand, so they’ll be close by, but even then it’s going to be very tough,” said Correa, aware of the calibre of the competition.
“Playing at an U-20 World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so it’s something unique and Argentina have to put up a fight,” he said. “We’ll try to repeat what we did in Uruguay and enjoy it as much as we can. We’re going to have to be more together than ever.”
Argentina missed out on the 2013 finals but are among the title favourites this time, and their hopes of success rest largely on Correa’s ability to link up with striker Giovanni Simeone. During qualifying the duo showed that their partnership runs deeper than the fact that Simeone’s father Diego is Correa’s coach at Atletico.
“That doesn’t come into it, but we do have a great understanding out on the pitch,” Correa said. “We’ve known each other since we were boys but back in Argentina we were always on opposite sides: he was at River and I was at San Lorenzo. We’ve always been opponents and there was always a lot of rivalry,” he added, breaking into a smile.
History shows that the U-20 World Cup has provided a springboard for some of the game’s biggest stars, especially Argentinians. The 1979 edition was Diego Maradona’s tournament, in 1997 Juan Roman Riquelme came to the fore, Javier Saviola shone in 2001, while Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero did likewise in 2005 and 2007 respectively.
So, will the 2015 finals be Correa’s World Cup? “I hope so, hopefully everything will turn out well,” he replied, almost unintentionally, before departing with the words: “For me the dream World Cup would be for us to win it. Nothing else matters.”