In December 2007, Real Madrid announced that they had signed a trio of promising young South American players. Easily the biggest of the three names was Fernando Gago, an elegant deep-lying playmaker who was touted as “the next Fernando Redondo”. Then there was the promising full-back Marcelo, who had caught the eye in Brazil with his energetic attacking displays on the left flank. He was to be “the next Roberto Carlos”.
And then there was Gonzalo Higuain – the next… nobody.
An awkward-looking player without a superstar-sounding name, Higuain was by far the most obscure name of the trio. Not that he was a complete mope, far from it – he was a starting centre-forward for River Plate no less, and announced his talents by scoring against their old foes Boca Juniors in the Superclasico. Nevertheless, his was the name that captured the least imagination in Madrid.
We often hear the term “born to play for Real Madrid” bandied about by fans, ex-players and club bigwigs (I’m looking at you Florentino Perez). Apparently there have been tons of players who were “born to play for Real Madrid”. Some, like Francesco Totti and Neymar, clearly thought otherwise. Others - like Kaka and the aforementioned Gago - played for Real Madrid alright… but not particularly well.
Higuain, one of the least high-profile and least hyped Real Madrid signings, was different.
“El Pipita” made his debut in La Liga in January 2007. In his debut game and the games that followed, he was rather wasteful and nervy in front of goal. But what stood out was the manner in which he got himself into goal-scoring positions, making intelligent runs and reading his new teammates’ play with great perceptiveness. And then there was the work rate that set him apart from most strikers.
But there was something else… something abstract and undefinable about the player that really stood out to Madridistas who had been crying out for a new young idol, one that was “made” in Real Madrid and not picked up after proving himself at another top European club. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was about him that made him so appealing.
And then, while watching one of his games in early 2007, my roommate at the time Sushil made an astute observation – in the simplest of language – that hit the nail on the head.
“He looks right in the Real Madrid shirt.”
For me personally, part of the reason for my soft spot for Higuain has always been the fact that he was the first player born after I was to play for Real Madrid. But the main reason has to be his epic performances towards the end of his debut season, in what was a historic season for Real Madrid.
During that 2006-07 season, Real Madrid were involved in one of the most tense La Liga races ever. Every one of the last 7-8 games were absolute must-wins for the team to keep pace with Barcelona and stand any chance of winning the league title and ending their miserable four-year trophy drought.
In May 2007, Real Madrid played Espanyol at the Santiago Bernabeu. The score was 3-3 and the game was all but over, as were Real Madrid’s title hopes. It was then that Higuain delivered one of the most memorable goals in Real Madrid’s recent history to keep their title hopes alive.
The 90th minute winner was Higuain’s first goal at the Santiago Bernabeu, and is still remembered fondly by every Madridista who watched that game whether at the stadium or on television. The goal showed all of Higuain’s four best attributes – his unwillingness to give up, work rate, intelligent running and clinical finishing. Under immense pressure, Higuain scored the goal that brought the Bernabeu to its feet in a way that no goal since has. Ruud Van Nistelrooy, one of the finest strikers of his generation, spent a good thirty seconds holding Higuain’s shirt aloft and displaying it to the crowd, as if to say “my successor has arrived”.
Indeed Van Nistelrooy played a huge role in Higuain’s development, mentoring the young striker and giving him the confidence he needed to succeed in the pressure-cooker environment of the Santiago Bernabeu.
“Ruud told me that goals are like ketchup. Sometimes as much as you try, nothing comes out. Then it comes out all at once.”
- Gonzalo Higuain
In 2008-09, Higuain’s proverbial ketchup bottle well and truly exploded. Despite the summer arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema, it was Higuain who was the club’s top scorer that season. Ironically, it was an injury to Van Nistelrooy that led to Higuain becoming a first XI player. Van Nistelrooy never regained his starting position, and left the club after that season.
Fast forward to 2011-12, Higuain’s second season under Jose Mourinho. El Pipita scored 22 league goals and played a vital role as Real Madrid romped to the La Liga title, setting a points record of 100 (equalled by Barcelona this season).
However, all was not well. Despite his heroics in La Liga, Higuain was admittedly very disappointing in the Champions League, fluffing important goalscoring chances in several key Champions League games over the seasons. During the 2011-12 season, Mourinho more often than not selected Benzema ahead of Higuain in Champions League games. El Pipita was stung by this, and by the unfair amount of criticism that was leveled at him. Indeed he never felt fully appreciated by the club’s top brass. Despite Mourinho saying that “only a stupid coach would sell Higuain”, speculation was rife that the Argentine would ask to leave in the summer.
However, following Real Madrid’s final league game of the season and the celebrations that followed, the fans at the Santiago Bernabeu made it clear that they wanted Higuain to stay. I was one of the 80,000 fans at the stadium who yelled themselves hoarse calling for Higuain to stay as he joined his victorious teammates in the middle of the field during the post-match celebrations.
Ololololololooololooo, Ooololololololooololoo, Pipita Higuain! Pipita Higuain! Pipiiita Higuaaiiiiiin!
- Santiago Bernabeu, May 13, 2012
Higuain admitted in the days that followed that he had seriously been considering his future at the club, but was convinced to stay thanks partly to the outpouring of affection of the fans towards him that night.
However just over a year following that memorable night at the Bernabeu, Higuain has announced his decision to leave Real Madrid. It’s been a difficult season for El Pipita, who was slaughtered by the fans and press after missing a one-on-one chance against Borussia Dortmund in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal. Years of not being fully appreciated by the club took its toll, and led Higuain to say the following:
“I wanted to go last year but I was convinced to stay by the fans, coach and my teammates. But this year, I changed my mind. It is too tense at the club. I made the decision with my family.
The club knows I want to go. These seven years have been intense, heavy. I’ve thought hard before making this decision. It’s hard but I want a new team, new challenges. This is because of the other things I do not want to talk about.”
By “the other things”, Higuain ostensibly was referring to his constant under-appreciation by club president Florentino Perez, and the fact that he has been made the scapegoat for Real Madrid’s inability to win their long-awaited 10th Champions League title. It is undeniable that Higuain’s performances in the Champions League – 8 goals and 4 assists in 48 games – have been hugely disappointing. However, it’s easy to forget that while it feels like he has been around forever, he is only 25 and still to reach his peak as a striker. It’s also easy to forget that his goalscoring rate in La Liga for Real Madrid is similar to that of Brazilian legend Ronaldo.
Higuain may yet flourish in the Champions League in a team where he is made the focal point of the attack. At the time of writing, his most likely destination appears to be Serie A champs Juventus, even though there are several other clubs including Arsenal and Manchester City who are understood to be vying for his services.
Higuain arrived at Real Madrid a virtual nobody, and was actually expected to play for the reserve team rather than first team. However his performances in training forced coach Fabio Capello to thrust him into the big time, and he never looked back. He now leaves Real Madrid a world-class striker, the club’s 14th-highest all-time goalscorer, and the starting centre-forward for the Argentine national team alongside his good friend Lionel Messi.
Real Madrid will surely regret letting go of Higuain just before he hit his peak years. After bringing the Argentine to Europe and overseeing his development into a world-class striker, most of us hoped that the club would do what it took to hold on to him and reap the benefits of his talents. However that isn’t the case. Apparently Higuain simply isn’t Galactico enough to be appreciated at Real Madrid.
What is perhaps most unfortunate is that Higuain will not get the kind of farewell he truly deserves. His final goal came in Real Madrid’s concluding La Liga fixture last weekend against Real Mallorca. Higuain, who wore the captain’s armband in the absences of Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, didn’t bother celebrating.
He leaves as he arrived, with little fanfare.
Higuain’s sad expression after the goal was a stark contrast to the ebullient celebrations we have come to expect from the likeable Argentine. Perhaps he was sad because he knew it was his last goal at the club that turned him into a star. Perhaps he was sad at years of being under-valued and criticized despite his exemplary attitude and league-winning performances. Most likely, it was a combination of the two.
Following the game, Higuain told journalists in the mixed zone that he would be leaving, setting off a flurry of rumours over who Real Madrid would sign to replace him. Luis Suarez of Liverpool and Edinson Cavani of Napoli appear to be the top targets. Whoever his replacement is, they will have an extremely difficult task at their hands matching his performances and winning the fans’ adoration like he did.
El Pipita will be sorely missed. Here’s wishing him success wherever he goes, at a club that will hopefully appreciate his talents and personality more than Real Madrid could.
Here are some of his best goals for Real Madrid:
[Fast forward to 3:15 in this vid]