Angel Di Maria was always a top-tier talent with unlimited potential and he has had no shortage of success on the club level, winning nearly every trophy possible after moving to Europe from Rosario Central. But on the international level, he was one of the key figures in recent years who was not able to get over the hump with an Argentina national team that felt a massive weight of pressure from the entire country on their shoulders after all of the final losses.
First, it's important to understand what the Argentine people have gone through in terms of soccer success. After winning their first World Cup in 1978 at home with a Mario Kempes-led side beating the Netherlands in the final, they followed it up with their second World Cup in 1986 with Diego Maradona leading the charge and beating West Germany for the crown with a legendary performance that featured the Hand of God goal and one of the best solo efforts all in the same game. The success only continued from there, winning the Copa America in 1991 and 1993.
But from 1993 and up until just recently, a national team full of memorable moments experienced mind-boggling misery with countless failures. Flaming out in the Copa America quarterfinals in 1995, 1997, 1999, and in 2011 as hosts. Losses in the 2004 and 2007 Copa America finals to Brazil before falling in penalties in the 2015 and 2016 Copa America finals to Chile showed just how difficult the turn of the century had been to the Albiceleste. We haven't even mentioned the World Cup disappointments. Losing early in the World Cup knockout stages in 2006, 2010 and 2018. Failing to make it out of the group in 2002 was perhaps an omen to the two decades that would follow.
That included two retirements on the international level from Lionel Messi, both short-lived in pursuit of eternal glory. Di Maria was always there when healthy and played a crucial role in making it far in competitions. His extra-time winner against Switzerland in 2014 comes to mind. But he came off injured in the 2015 Copa America final and the 2016 Copa America finals. He missed the 2014 World Cup final through injury as well -- a game Argentina came up short in extra time. Luck was just never on his side.
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Then came the 2021 Copa America, delayed a year due to COVID, where an impressive Argentina got their second crack at the tournament under Lionel Scaloni. They cruised past Ecuador in the quarterfinals, edged Colombia in the semifinals in penalty kicks -- the launch of Emiliano Martinez's legacy -- and then came mighty Brazil in the Maracana. Taking on the reigning champions, a team that would be favored to win the 2022 World Cup, all the while boasting a team of young players mixed in with those Argentine veterans? A surprising 1-0 win for Argentina to claim their first trophy in nearly 30 years, all off the foot of Di Maria, with his 22nd-minute goal past Ederson the difference. His lofted touch over the shot-stopper looked to be the career-defining moment he always wanted, helping his friend Messi reach his goal of international glory.
That moment breathed new life into an Argentina desperate for success, with Messi and Di Maria both looking to validate their careers with the ultimate honor in Qatar. But a tournament-opening loss to Saudi Arabia, an all-time World Cup upset, made the focus shift to just trying to get out of the group. That, at times against Mexico in the second game, seemed unlikely. Then they caught fire, and Di Maria saved his best for last.
Fast forward 17 months, "El Fideo" wouldn't just build off of the Copa America win, he would top it by having the game of his life and helping Argentina regain their desired place on the global scale as the world's best. After starting all three group stage games, he would go on to miss three of the four knockout stage matches before the final due to injury, getting an appearance against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals off the bench, visibly less than 100% with his hamstring.
He made an unmatched impact on Sunday in one of the best World Cup finals to date. And while the ball always seemed to go through Messi, it nearly always went to the left flank with a paced, curling ball to the feet of the Juventus man.
Messi gets the headlines, and rightfully so, but you can argue he was the best player in this game, winning the penalty for Argentina's opening goal before scoring the second on a delightful shot in the first half from inside the box. Di Maria created three chances, he was 4-for-6 on successful dribbles, and he will have Jules Kounde running for the hills the next time he sees him. The former Real Madrid man carved up the Barcelona defender with his brilliant, quick cuts and touches, only further embarrassing Ousmane Dembele, another Barcelona man, on the penalty.
Posted up against the touchline and with a light accurate touch always at the end of his feet, it was as if the ball was stuck to his boots each and every time he wanted to keep it close. From cutting inside to outside, from cutting to the end line or back, Di Maria's ability to create space, get into space and deliver is what lifted Argentina to their early 2-0 lead, his fine goal on the counter being the second.
Still not over this masterpiece of a goal by Argentina 🎨🖼pic.twitter.com/rBH0HSCyFJ— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 18, 2022
From the wins to the losses, from the ups to the downs, including the injuries, Di Maria's performance just over a year ago at the Maracana helped Argentina believe that this was possible. What he did on Sunday was carve up the French defense like nobody had in this tournament, giving his team an advantage and all of the momentum. While they would give up their lead, they would find a way in the end, with Di Maria pulled after a valiant 64 minutes on the pitch.
And while they didn't win with him on it, they wouldn't have come close to winning it if he didn't play a part in the final.
Di Maria was on the bench, visually in tears as a gassed spectator. There he was, with his penny wiping away tears of both misery and joy, riding a rollercoaster that all Argentina fans experienced themselves since 1993. There was relief in winning the Copa America, but how could you not get emotional after being once again so close to the ultimate prize in sports? He could only watch the 2014 final, but in 2022, he etched his name in history and put his team in position to win with those two massive moments.
This moment between Messi and Di María ❤️ pic.twitter.com/P3AcM4pP7I— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 18, 2022
He missed so many important games over the years, but there he was delivering on the big stage at the Marcana in the summer of 2021 and there he was again on Sunday. Little did anyone know that 2021 would set the foundation of what would come next with one frail, lanky player again taking over. Di Maria had an Olympic gold medal with the national team, a prize that pails in comparison to a Copa America, much less a World Cup.
But in the decades to come, Argentina's modern era of soccer success will be marked by this day and by this man. From Buenos Aires to Tokyo, from Los Angeles to Sydney, the Malbec is flowing and the empanadas are being devoured. Argentina are once again champions of the world, and Di Maria is to thank for just as much as anybody else.
A name that must stand alongside them from here on out, a man who has scored in the last two finals for the Albiceleste (last three finals if you want to count La Finalissima), his name and impact must never be forgotten among the Argentine legends of the game.
Kempes. Maradona. Messi. Di Maria.
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