Higuain finally in Argentina's plans

On the surface, the fact that Real Madrid star Gonzalo Higuain has only made a trio of appearances for Argentina's national team appears to be a huge oversight.
Gonzalo Higuain only has three caps for Argentina. ((Clive Brunskill/Getty Images))

On the surface, the fact that Gonzalo Higuain has only made a trio of appearances for Argentina's national team appears to be a huge oversight.

Higuain is, after all, being touted as the next Gabriel Batistuta, and if his current form for Real Madrid is any indication he'll be one of the players to watch at next summer's World Cup in South Africa.

But when you delve deeper into his past, it's easy to understand why the multi-talented striker hasn't featured more prominently for the Albicelestes.

Cut his teeth at River Plate

A prodigy with Buenos Aires club River Plate, Higuain was only 19 years old when he signed a 6 ½-year contract with Real Madrid in 2006, his reputation as one of the hottest prospects in South American soccer confirmed by the $19.7-million Cdn transfer fee paid out by the fabled Spanish side.

Higuain, now 22, was used sparingly in his first season and a half with los blancos, but last year came the breakthrough: the Argentine ace scored an impressive 22 goals to finish fifth in the league scoring race, displacing team legend Raul as Real Madrid's No. 1 forward.

Higuain has it all — breakneck speed, sublime dribbling skills and a pile driver of a shot. He's also as versatile as he is deadly in front of the goal, able to play either as a target man, a deep-lying forward or out on the right wing. 

So why has he only earned three measly caps? Maybe because for all of his decisiveness during the course of a game, Higuain showed just as much indecisiveness away from the field before finally pledging his allegiance to Argentina.

Higuain was born in Brest, France, where his father, former River Plate defender Jorge Higuain, played for Stade Brest 29 in the French first division. The family moved to Argentina when Gonzalo was still a baby, but he was eligible to represent either Argentina or France in international play by virtue of being born on French soil.

When Higuain first started turning heads at River Plate, both Alfio Basile, then manager of the Argentine national team, and French counterpart Raymond Domenech were anxious to have him on their rosters.

But Higuain refused call-ups from both France and Argentina, choosing instead to carefully weigh his options before committing himself. Only in 2007, after being publicly courted by both nations, did he declare his intention to play for Argentina.

Turned down U-20 invite

That same year he turned down an invite to play at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada. He was barely missed as Argentina won the tournament in style, but his decision to snub his country's youth team resulted in him only making his senior team debut this past October, despite being in a rich vein of form for Real Madrid.

Unimpressed with Higuain's perceived lack of patriotism, national team manager Diego Maradona punished him by making him wait.

"Higuain turned down the opportunity to play at the U-20 World Cup two years ago, and for Maradona there are few bigger crimes than to turn down a call-up from Argentina," Tim Vickery, a Rio-based reporter and expert on South American soccer, told CBCSports.ca.

"For Maradona that's a serious flaw and Higuain had to pay a little spell penance for that before he got his chance."

Few represented their country with greater distinction during their playing careers than Maradona, who couldn't understand why Higuain wouldn't jump at the chance to play for Argentina, even at the youth level.

For all the fame and fortune he earned during his club career, Maradona said the proudest moments of his playing career came while he was wearing the famous baby blue and white stripped jersey of the Argentine national team.

Made national team debut in October

Little wonder Maradona didn't roll out the red carpet for Higuain when he took over as national team manager in October 2008.

But with his team in real danger of missing out on next year's World Cup, Maradona finally broke down and called up Higuain with two games remaining in the South American qualifiers — two games that Argentina had to win in order to ensure qualification.

Higuain wasted little time, scoring in his debut on Oct. 11 in a 2-1 win over Peru, and playing a key role in Argentina's 1-0 victory over Uruguay in Montevideo three days later.

The path is now clear for Higuain, fresh off a two-goal performance this past weekend in Real Madrid's 3-2 win over Valencia, to lead to the line for Argentine next year in South Africa.

But before he does that, he's set his sights on winning the Spanish league title with Real Madrid and the Pichichi trophy as the top scorer.

"Overcoming the 22 league goals I got last year would be very important to me because of the progression that means. I am young and still have room for improvement," Higuain told Spanish sports daily AS.

"I am at my best since coming to Madrid, full of confidence in what I do and what we do. The Pichichi is a dream for me and also a goal, like any striker, but only if accompanied by the league title."

Spoken like a true team player and music to Maradona's ears.