As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased Crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
The first name that comes to mind when people think of soccer players from Rosario, Argentina is obviously Lionel Messi, the wunderkind success story who moved overseas to La Masia as a teenager and now stars for Barcelona. The second might very well be Angel di Maria, the Real Madrid star we previewed recently that has blossomed this season ahead of the World Cup. Both are dynamic offensive players that evoke the wizardry of Maradona, making it imminently understandable why they would be the first to jump to mind.
One that might not immediately dawn on even the most stalwart fans of the game is Ezequiel Garay, though he will be no less important to the success or failure of Argentina’s World Cup bid this summer. Garay, the center back for Portuguese champion and Europa League finalist Benfica, will play a similar lockdown role for the Albiceleste in Brazil.
It isn’t nearly as glamorous a role as the one being executed by some of his compatriots from Rosario, but if Argentina is going to advance deep into the tournament they’ll need to prevent goals as much as they’ll need to score them. Thus Garay — who has been linked with a potential transfer to Manchester United this summer — could be the real difference-maker for his national team. Knowing that, let’s look today at the lesser-known Argentine defender that could soon be securing the back line not just for his native land but also one of the biggest clubs in Europe.
An Early Move to Iberia
Born in Rosario on October 10, 1986, Ezequiel Garay first burst on to the international radar as a 16-year-old in 2003 as part of Argentina’s third-place efforts at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. The following year, he got his professional start with Newell’s Old Boys in his hometown as a 17-year-old just in time to celebrate the club’s 2004 Apertura title. But Garay would ultimately play only 14 games for the club. The summer after joining the senior side for Newell’s, Garay was part of the starting 11 for the Argentina under-20 national team that took the FIFA U-20 World Cup title in the Netherlands. Most remember the tournament as Messi’s breakthrough, but in part it was his fellow teammate from Rosario that allowed the creative dynamo the freedom to press forward and score his tournament-leading six goals.
The tournament certainly opened some eyes about Garay, though, as he would move to Racing Santander in Spain in December 2005. He would help prevent the club from being relegated after joining in midseason, and the following year he developed a reputation as an attacking defender, scoring nine goals in 31 games for Santander as the club finished 10th in Spain.
Over the next two years, he would be a linchpin for Racing Santander’s development into one of Spain’s dark-horse clubs. The team would finish an all-time best sixth in La Liga in 2008, qualifying for European competition for the first time in club history, and also reached the semifinal of the Copa del Rey in addition to their league success. He would then rejoin his teammates on Argentina’s under-23 squad in Beijing, defeating Nigeria in the gold-medal match to become an Olympic champion.
Wandering Between Giants
Santander would sell off his rights to Spanish giants Real Madrid at the end of the 2008 season, though Real would allow Garay to remain with Racing on loan for the 2008-2009 campaign. He continued to develop in two dozen more matches for the club that had brought him to Europe, and once he was brought to the Spanish capital the following year he became a key component of Manuel Pellegrini’s Galacticos.
He would not be as fortunate once Pellegrini was sacked following the 2009-2010 season. New manager Jose Mourinho had little use for Garay, and the Argentine defender started to wither on Real’s bench. In his final season with the Spanish club, he was relegated to spot duty and appeared in only five matches.
Mercifully, he was allowed to depart to Portugal after a lost year, moving to Lisbon to join Benfica in July 2011. He would immediately lock into a starting position with the club, usually alongside Brazilian defender Luisão in central defense. His arrival coincided with a rebirth of the club’s fortunes; they had reached the Europa League semifinals the season prior to the transfer. That first year in Portugal, Garay would adjust quickly, helping the club win the Portuguese league cup and reach the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals.
He has helped Benfica reclaim its position atop Portuguese soccer, instrumental in their run to the Europa League final each of the past two seasons (the first time that Benfica had played for European hardware since 1990) as well as the 33rd league title in club history earned this year. After looking like a bust in Mourinho’s system, Garay is once again a hot commodity after his resurgence with Portugal’s preeminent club. He’s been linked most intensely with a move to Manchester United this offseason, though a solid showing in Brazil could see his price drive skyward as more bidders emerge.
Garay earned his first cap for Argentina in 2007, playing in a friendly against Norway that August. He had been slated to join the national team for the 2007 Copa America, but injuries prevented the defender from participating in the tournament.
After playing for the 2008 Olympic team, Garay languished outside of the national team selection until then-head coach Sergio Batista utilized him in the 2011 Copa America. Though the Argentine side would fall to Uruguay in the quarterfinals, Garay played well enough to merit a more regular position in the starting 11 even after Batista was dismissed from his position as national team coach and Alejandro Sabella took over Argentina.
He would suit up for all of Argentina’s qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup, helping the Albiceleste finish atop the CONMEBOL table with the best goal differential (+20) in South America. The Argentinians would lose just twice in 16 matches, booking their ticket to South America with plenty of time to spare. With a surplus of goal-scoring threats, Garay showed the ability to remain in a lockdown role in contrast to his more attacking play for Benfica. It is that ability to shut down opposing attacks that will be as critical for Argentina’s success this summer as anything his fellow Rosario teammates might do on the other end of the pitch.