Gonzalo Higuaín Exclusive interview
Here at Juventus, you play to win everything. That’s the mentality. This season we will try again
Gonzalo Higuaín does not remember his first time. He can tell you about scoring for River Plate at 18 years old, about opening his Real Madrid account away against Atlético, or how he marked his Argentina debut with a cool finish against Peru. Ask him to recall his first ever goal, though – or even just one that stands out vividly from his childhood – and somehow nothing comes to mind.
“No,” he insists. “I remember all those other firsts.”
Perhaps we ought not to be surprised. When you have racked up as many goals as Higuaín then you could hardly expect to keep hold of them all. He has hit 60 in the past two Serie A seasons alone – and that is to exclude cup competitions. In total, he has scored almost 300 times in his professional career.
More than that, though, Higuaín might struggle to recall his earliest strikes for the simple reason that he started so young. As the son of another professional footballer, this game has defined his life from day one. He holds a French passport because his father, Jorge, accepted a transfer from Boca Juniors to Brest a few months after Gonzalo was conceived.
Three decades on, the Juventus striker has no doubt that he owes some part of his on-pitch prowess to his dad. “Of course,” Higuaín says. “He was a defender, so he taught me all the things a defender does not like. In that sense, I had an advantage from the beginning. The fact he played at the back meant he could show me what another defender would not want me to do.”
And what were those things, exactly? “Eh, I’m not telling you! That’s a secret.”
He smiles as he speaks, but he’s not joking. Scoring goals is how Higuaín makes his living. Why would he give away such info for free? Besides, Jorge was not his only tutor. Some of Higuaín’s greatest learning material is readily available on YouTube: videos of the Brazilian Ronaldo, a collection of which he used to keep on VHS.
“I’ve watched two million of his goals,” says Higuaín. “For me, he’s the best ever, by a big margin.”
He shares his idol’s physicality, a willingness to use force as well as finesse to unsettle an opponent. Pressed on what makes a great striker, though, he talks instead about the need for a certain hunger, a single-mindedness on the pitch. “For me, it’s about always having the image of the goal in my mind,” he says. “That’s fundamental, I think.”
His former Napoli team-mate Dries Mertens pointed to something similar during an interview this year, contending that Higuaín wakes up every morning with goals in his eyes.
We might call it an obsession, perhaps? “No, not that. More like an obligation. It’s traditional that you score goals as a striker.”
Higuaín is quick to stress that he relishes this duty, not that such a clarification was required. Anyone who has seen Higuaín celebrate a goal ought to recognise a man who enjoys his work. The opposition could be Barcelona or Frosinone, the goal a tap-in or a 30-yard thunderbolt, but the reaction is typically the same: arms wide, eyes wild, mouth roaring.
Even so, that word, “obligation”, hangs in the air. Higuaín is not someone who denies the weight on his shoulders. When a journalist from El Mundo asked him about living under the media spotlight this year, the striker pointed out that he had been dealing with such pressure from the moment he broke through to River Plate’s first team.
“I always wanted it,” says Higuaín. “That’s why I play football. Someone who can’t feel this pressure does not love this sport. Football is constant pressure, from day to day. You need to know how to live with that.”
Higuaín does it better than most. How many players across Europe’s biggest leagues have delivered such ruthless consistency over the past decade? From Real Madrid to Napoli and now Juventus, he has smashed the striker’s benchmark of one goal in every two games year after year – even during those spells when he was routinely being deployed as a substitute at the Bernabéu.
One could argue, furthermore, that he is only getting better. Higuaín posted the most prolific season of any individual in Serie A history in 2015-16, scoring 36 times despite missing three matches through suspension. His Champions League strike rate has improved, too, since he arrived in Italy – with 10 goals in 19 matches for Napoli and Juventus.
And yet, all this talk of pressure hardly makes it sound like a joyful existence. Can football really still be fun when you are so keenly aware of the expectations upon you?
This thought provokes a nervous laugh. “Football for me is the most ever-changing sport in the world,” says Higuaín. “Because you can go seven games in a row, scoring in all of them, then you don’t score for two games and already you’re doing badly. You’re in crisis.
“But that’s what happens to people who are strong at what they do, right? Everyone gets used to seeing you score lots of goals, and then when you don’t score for two games they get surprised. That’s actually a rather beautiful thing, it’s cute. So, like I say, for me football is ever-changing. But, yes, it is still fun.”
It is an answer that externalises: putting the emphasis on other people’s reactions, rather than his own experiences on the pitch. Maybe we need to reframe the question. We already knew, after all, that Higuaín still gets a kick out of sticking the ball in the net. So is the beauty of football in the playing or the winning?
“For me, it is the winning,” Higuaín replies. “Clearly, if you play well and win, that’s much better. But playing well and not winning doesn’t leave you with anything in the end.”
With three La Liga triumphs, one Scudetto earned in Serie A, and further cup triumphs in Italy and Spain, Higuaín is hardly short of trophies. And yet, when we talk about winning, it is impossible to ignore how close he has come to the biggest prizes of all.
In the past three and a half years, Higuaín has lost in the final of a World Cup, the Champions League and two Copa Américas. These were team defeats, not individual ones, but he did miss chances along the way that might have helped things to turn out differently. Does it eat him up to think about what might have been? Does he ever start to feel like he might be cursed in the biggest games of all?
His response is firm but clipped. “No,” says Higuaín. “I always believe that it’s beautiful to win important matches, but it’s also very important simply to reach those moments. I truly believe that. Juve have played two Champions League finals in three years. That is very difficult to do.”
Not everyone will be satisfied with this answer. The money-spinning soap opera that is modern football demands sweeping narratives, heroes and villains, plotlines spelled out in black
The goals keep coming Gonzalo Higuaín after scoring for Juventus in their 3-0 victory over Chievo on Saturday, their third win out of three in Serie A this season
Higuaín scores one of his 36 goals in a prolific 2015-16 season, his last at Napoli