Gon­zalo Higuaín Ex­clu­sive in­ter­view

Here at Ju­ven­tus, you play to win ev­ery­thing. That’s the men­tal­ity. This sea­son we will try again

The Guardian - Sport - - Front Page -

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

Mas­simo Pinca/ Reuters

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

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