Gonzalo Higuaín: The €90m man with a big point to prove
‘Massacred’ when he arrived in Turin, he’s impressed since
Gonzalo Higuain could have a big part to play as Juventus attempt to beat Real Madrid and win the Champions League. Photo: Pierpaolo Piciucco/Action Plus via Getty Images
Gonzalo Higuaín could have lost his temper. He could have ranted about the 32 goals he has scored this season, or the double that set Juventus on the path to victory in the Champions League semi-final against Monaco. With a press officer trying to drag him away, he could just as easily have turned his back and ignored the question altogether.
Instead, his response to being asked whether he would fluff his lines against Real Madrid on Saturday – just like he had in the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the Copa América Centenario – was to crack a joke. “I’ll just say that if I have another final like that, then don’t come and interview me afterwards.”
It is a peculiar thing that somebody with Higuaín’s CV should still be defined in the eyes of many by his failures. This is a man who won La Liga three times with Real and now stands one game away from helping Juventus to their first treble. A striker who scored 36 goals in 35 Serie A games for Napoli last season – smashing a league record that had stood for 66 years.
Despite such outlandish numbers, there were still plenty who questioned Juventus’s judgment when they coughed up €90m (£75.3m) to buy him in the summer. They had already won Serie A for five seasons running and it was no secret the club’s priority was to start replicating such success in Europe. So why go after a forward who had scored only 13 goals in 55 Champions League games?
When we saw each other for the first time in August, standing there with this season and this team before us, we knew we could have a magnificent year
Never mind the fact Higuaín had evolved through his career and that a more recent sampling showed five goals in seven matches in that same competition with Napoli. He made himself an easy target when he showed up for pre-season training carrying a few extra pounds. It was not a great look for a club-record signing who was supposed to be helping them move on from Paul Pogba.
“It was a difficult summer,” he conceded in an interview with Corriere della Sera. “They massacred me. They said I was in bad shape and much else. Then I stepped on to the pitch, scored a goal, and suddenly everyone says I’m in great form. Sometimes I really don’t understand this stuff.”
Higuaín made his competitive debut for Juventus at home to Fiorentina. He came on in the 66th minute and hit the winner in the 75th. Overweight or otherwise, he went on to score twice in his first start, against Sassuolo, and added four more by the first weekend of October.
Fast forward to today, not quite a year removed from Pogba’s sale, and Juventus appear stronger without the world’s most expensive player. That is hardly all down to Higuaín. Dani Alves and Miralem Pjanic have added quality, while Paulo Dybala and Alex Sandro are maturing into world-class talents. Massimiliano Allegri has found fresh ways to get the best out of others, such as Mario Mandzukic.
Higuaín, though, is a big part of the picture. No other player in Juventus’s squad can lead the line so effectively, bullying centre-backs with his power before choosing his moments to slip into the gaps he engineers between them.
He is a product of his upbringing. Higuaín was born in France to a father, Jorge, who was playing for Brest in Ligue 1 – a brief European sojourn in a career that also took in stints at Boca Juniors and River Plate. “Bread and football,” as the younger Higuaín has put it. “That’s how I grew up.”
If an abundance of carbs might not always have stood him in good stead, the guidance of Jorge – a defender – most certainly did. “From him I learned mental strength and nastiness,” Higuaín told the Italian newspaper La Stampa. “That and the best way to unsettle a defender – but this is a secret.”
His mother was an artist and he credits her for giving him an appreciation for the aesthetic joys of sport as well. More crucially, she was the one who took him to hospital when he contracted meningitis at 10 months old. Without her swift response, he might not have lived.
Higuaín was too young to remember the incident and knows of it only from stories told by his relatives but he is not a man who struggles to keep life in perspective. He returns often in interviews to the thought that footballers are people not robots and the importance of being happy away from the pitch.
Perhaps that, too, has been an added value for Juventus. Giorgio Chiellini has highlighted the character of the South American contingent in the dressing room. “Compared to us Italians they bring a little happiness and light-heartedness,” he said. “You need it at this point of the season. We Italians can be a bit harder, more serious.”
None of which is to suggest Higuaín underestimates the importance of Saturday’s final, nor that he fails to understand how all eyes will be on him. His status as a former Real player provides an intriguing subplot, though he insisted he had not been in contact with any former team-mates.
The more interesting story, in his eyes, is the one he has been writing with his Juventus colleagues; the one that was always supposed to end with the team playing in the Champions League final. “When we saw each other for the first time in August, standing there with this season and this team before us, we knew we could have a magnificent year,” he recalled. “My responsibility is to help Juve to win as many titles as possible.”
A domestic double makes for a strong start but it is the Champions League they want most in Turin. Higuaín understands that as well as anyone. He has delivered all the right lines this week, even in the face of provocation. Juventus only hope his feet speak so eloquently in Cardiff.