Eight years is a long time in the life of an athlete. But just like Messi, Di Maria has preserved and persisted towards his childhood dream, points out Deepti Patwardhan.
As far as sporting fairytales go, last Sunday was a doozy.
In one of the greatest matches, one of the greatest players in history, Lionel Messi, cemented his place in the pantheon of legends by claiming the World Cup.
He had gone to four World Cups previously and returned empty-handed, suffered silently as football-mad Argentina heaped expectations on him to lead them, a la Diego Maradona of 1986, to another world triumph.
Years of heartache was washed away at the Lusail stadium as Messi lifted the golden glittering World Cup trophy.
For a month or so, Messi had been the centre of the footballing universe.
This was his fifth World Cup, perhaps the final one, his last chance to become a world champion. And while the focus stayed firmly on him, right from Argentina’s disastrous start against Saudi Arabia to the final night of heroics, the other boy from Rosario was set free to do what he does best. Win the big games for La Albiceleste.
Fondly called ‘Fideo‘ (noodle), Angel Di Maria was born a few months after Messi in Rosario, Santa Fe, some 300 kms northwest of the country’s capital Buenos Aires.
A hyper-active child, who worked alongside his family at a local coal yard, he took up football as a way to channel his energy.
By the age of four, he had already signed up with Rosario Central (a club that plays in the Argentine premier league) youth team.
Ever since 2007, when the two boys from Rosario played in Argentina’s iconic white and sky-blue jersey together in the U-20 World Cup, Di Maria has been like Messi’s shadow.
Di Maria scored three goals in that tournament. A year later, Messi and Di Maria were called up by Argentina for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In a dramatic quarterfinal against the Dutch, that pitted two footballing ideologies, Messi scored the first goal while Di Maria broke the deadlock in extra-time by scoring off a Messi assist.
In the final, Messi once again fed Di Maria, who chipped the ball over the Nigerian goalkeeper to score the only goal of the game. Argentina had found their two to tango.
Messi’s other-worldly talent has won him legions of fans, many of whom played alongside him at the 2022 World Cup, and seen him ascend to footballing immortality.
Though under-rated, Di Maria is a midfield genius in his own right. Originally a winger, he can easily slot into any attacking midfield position.
While Messi inspired poetry during his tiki-taka days in Barcelona, Di Maria, along with Croatia’s Luka Modric, was the beating heart of a robust Real Madrid.
The lanky player may not look like a physical threat on the football field, but his ball-control and vision make him a constant menace.
Making his Argentina senior debut in 2008, Di Maria has had World Cup heartbreaks of his own.
His first outing at the biggest stage came at the 2010 South Africa, when Messi was the playmaker and Diego Maradona the manager.
Argentina’s dream team, however, could not deliver the Cup — they lost 0-4 to Germany in the quarterfinals.
At the 2014 World Cup, Argentina came within one game and a few inches of winning the trophy. They squared off against Germany in the final at Brazil’s legendary Maracana stadium.
In the second half, Messi had a golden chance to put Argentina in the lead, but with only goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to beat, he struck the ball six inches wide off the post.
After Germany won 1-0, courtesy an extra-time goal by Mario Goetze, the image of Messi looking longingly at the World Cup while walking up to pick up his runners-up medal and the wholly meaningless Golden Ball (player of the tournament) award was beamed across the globe.
The world bled with Messi; Di Maria nursed his nightmare alone as he was ruled out of the final due to a thigh injury.
Eight years is a long time in the life of an athlete. But just like Messi, Di Maria has preserved and persisted towards his childhood dream.
The long, arduous journey has taken its toll. The 34 year old, who won the Champions League, Copa del Rey and the La Liga with Real Madrid, went to Juventus as a free agent this summer.
At the 2022 World Cup, Di Maria completed 90 minutes on the pitch only once — against Saudi Arabia in the opener. He did not start in the Round of 16, quarterfinals or semi-finals.
But he did in the final and had a telling effect on the match. Like he had in the last final Argentina participated in.
Di Maria has been one of the pillars of Argentine renaissance in the past year.
The team, under Messi and Coach Lionel Scaloni, who was appointed in 2018, made a breakthrough last July when they won the 2021 Copa America, their first major trophy since 1993.
Messi was the joint tournament top-scorer with four goals and was adjudged the man of the tournament.
Di Maria scored one goal, the all-important goal against Brazil, as Argentina won 1-0 in the final to end the trophy drought.
Deployed on the left wing, Di Maria buzzed with relentless energy against France in the World Cup final last Sunday.
He troubled France’s defence, which had looked pretty sturdy, with some incisive runs from the left flank.
It was one such sprint that saw a panicked Ousmane Dembele trip Di Maria inside the box. Messi scored from the penalty spot to give Argentina the lead in the 23rd minute.
A few minutes later, Messi launched a move bubbling with Argentine brilliance from near the half-line.
The ball quickly changed feet from Messi to Alexis Mac Allister, who came charging down the right wing and sent a perfectly weighted pass, to Di Maria.
An unmarked Di Maria coolly tapped the ball into goal before melting into tears.
For an hour Di Maria dominated what was supposedly Messi’s night of coronation.
With Argentina still well ahead in the game, he was substituted in the 64th minute and missed the next hour of chaos and France, and Kylian Mbappe, sought to steal away the trophy.
But this Argentine team, rallying behind their captain, carrying his hopes as much as Argentina’s, played with a unity and resilience rarely seen before from them.
All for one, one for all. Even as Mbappe kept bringing France in the game, once, twice, thrice, they held strong.
Argentina earned their 4-2 win on penalties; the triumph sweeter because they had been pushed to the brink.
As Messi held aloft the World Cup trophy, he wasn’t the only boy from Rosario who fulfilled his footballing destiny.
- FIFA WORLD CUP 2022
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sports writer based in Mumbai.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com
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