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 not Angel di Maria. But maybe it should be… after all, born eight months after his more illustrious compatriot in the same city northwest of Buenos Aires up the Parana River, they have shared equal amounts of success at the youth level for Argentina. Both of them guided their respective under-20 national sides to world championships. They were both instrumental to the success of Argentina’s gold-medal performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — though to some extent di Maria’s two game winners were more dramatic.
But that’s mincing words. While both of them having been virtual mainstays for Argentina over the past five years, of course you’re going to think first about Lionel Messi. That’s the way it works for any player from Rosario. On some level it has been because Messi has been so good for so long — the mystique of the prodigy who left for La Masia at 11 years old and never looked back except when putting on the albiceleste of the national team.
But with these two players, it is an especially interesting case given that di Maria has played on Messi’s left flank for Argentina for so long. Though these two sons of Rosario suit up for opposite sides of the great El Clásico rivalry in Spain, they’ll both be instrumental cogs in Argentina’s quest for a third World Cup come June. Let’s look today at the lesser-known midfielder that covers the turf up the left wing his national team.
Born in Rosario on Valentine’s Day 1988, Angel di Maria was one of Argentina’s rising stars when he first joined the youth squad at Rosario Central at age 13. He earned his first appearances for the senior side four years later, playing 14 games during the 2005-06 season.
That same year, he started playing for the Argentina under-20 national team. He would become a stalwart in the Rosario Central lineup, playing well enough to garner attention from Rubin Kazan in the Russian Premier League a month shy of his 19th birthday. After mulling the deal, he decided to stay in Argentina.
The move would pay off, as he put in a breakout performance at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada the summer after turning down the move to Europe. Anchoring the midfield for Argentina, di Maria potted three goals and was an instrumental cog feeding Sergio Aguero in attack as the team defeated the Czech Republic for the title. No longer drawing the attention of just Russian squads, di Maria had his pick of moves over the summer.
Move to Europe
Eventually, Benfica would win the contest for his services. He would take a while to warm up to playing in Portugal; in his first season, he made 44 appearances but only managed one goal and four assists. But in Beijing that summer, he would replicate the success he had enjoyed the summer prior in Canada as Argentina took the gold medal in the Olympic tournament. Teaming up with Messi and the rest of the under-23 national team, di Maria was pivotal in the team’s success.
In the 105th minute of Argentina’s quarterfinal match, di Maria prevented another period of extra time against the Netherlands with a late blast that broke a 1-1 deadlock and sent his country through to the semifinals. After getting by Brazil 3-0 in the semifinals, di Maria would come up big again in the gold-medal match against Nigeria. After a scoreless first half, the midfielder put the ball past goalkeeper Ambruse Vanzekin in the 58th minute, scoring what would prove the game winner in the defensive battle for top honors.
By 2009-2010, di Maria was finally taking flight in Europe as well. With 10 goals and 19 assists in 45 contests across all competitions, the Argentine midfielder drew the attention of even bigger clubs than Benfica. Real Madrid would trade for his services, and he would sign a five-year, 25-million euro contract with the Spanish powerhouse. Though he has had to fight his way into playing time — he was nearly linked with a 35-million euro move to Chelsea in 2012 — he has become a consistent contributor for Real.
This season has proven to be another breakout year for the man from Rosario. Manager Carlo Ancelotti moved the midfielder from the left flank to a central position on the pitch, and he has blossomed for the club. With four league games and the UEFA Champions League final against Atletico Madrid still to play, di Maria already has notched 11 goals and 21 assists playing in his new attacking midfield role. Entering the 2014 World Cup, di Maria is in some of the best form of his life.
The run of good form has not been lost on his compatriots. National team coach Alejandro Sabella has started to utilize di Maria in the central role for Argentina, and he could be the catalyst that drives the squad to its first World Cup final since the Diego Maradona-led side lost to West Germany in 1990.
“It is very important for Argentina that di Maria is playing in the central midfield position,” former Argentina international Hernan Crespo said recently in an interview with Goal. “He has convinced Ancelotti to change the way the team plays. He took Isco’s space, but Madrid have won with di Maria playing good football, and he’s been good for the balance of the team.”
Since earning his first cap with the senior squad in 2009, he has made 45 appearances for the national side — including a starting role for the 2010 World Cup team. Steadily growing into his role for Argentina, he could continue his breakout campaign into this summer. In an potentially prophetic sound bite, Argentine legend Diego Maradona told ESPN Soccernet in 2012, “Angel has the quality to be a worldwide superstar within the next two years. I have always followed his career closely, and his level has increased enormously during the time he has been playing in Europe.”
If he continues the run of form that he has enjoyed during the 2013-2014 campaign for Real Madrid and in World Cup qualifying for Argentina, di Maria could turn Maradona into Nostradamus — and expand the world’s respect for soccer in Rosario beyond merely Messi.