Ángel Di María: the rise, fall and rise of a divisive talent like few others

Ángel Di María: the rise, fall and rise of a divisive talent like few others

Most identify Ángel Di María as one of the few lucky people to have played with both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Some point to his failings at Manchester United, others to his outstanding performance in the 2014 Champions League final. Few remember the winning goal for Argentina in the last-16 of the World Cup in São Paulo; even fewer have even thought to retrace the steps that he himself trod to get to the very top. He has played alongside Messi and Ronaldo, that’s true. But, without him, neither of those two greats and their achievements would be seen as they are now.

Today, over £160m has been spent in transfer fees on Di María – and 35 footballs. That was the compensation paid by Rosario Central to Torito for a four-year-old boy in 1992. 

The skilful but slight winger was far from the finished product when he went to Canada for the Under-20 World Cup in 2007. Sat with him in that dressing room were Sergio Agüero and Sergio Romero among others. You could fast forward seven years and see those three players next to each other again, Di María injury-stricken, as Argentina prepared for the World Cup final at the Maracana, but we’ll leave that to later. By 2007, a 19-year-old Di María had proved himself back home for Rosario. This tournament was, for many, a one-time opportunity to impress scouts sent from football’s grandest names.

Those scouts would’ve seen the scrawny teenager net in the last-16 against Poland, the semi-final against Chile, and lift the trophy after the final. Some onlookers forced their clubs to act. Boca Juniors made an offer, so did Arsenal. Benfica were the most persistent, completing a deal worth £7.25m shortly after as Di María and his winners’ medal had headed home. 

The Argentine wasn’t the only promising talent to be scooped up by Benfica that summer. David Luiz and Freddy Adu also shone in Canada while Óscar Cardozo was plucked from Newell’s Old Boys thanks to his prominent displays at the Copa América with Paraguay. Fernando Santos attempted to integrate these youthful arrivals into his Benfica team – one that had failed to pick up a trophy the season just gone – but he was on borrowed time and was dismissed just weeks into the campaign.

“When I got to Benfica, at age 19, I barely played for two seasons,” Di María told The Players’ Tribune in 2018. “My father gave up his job to move to Portugal with me, and he had to be separated by an ocean from my mother. There were nights when I heard him on the phone with my mom, and he was crying because he missed her so much. At times, it seemed like a huge mistake. I wasn’t starting, and I wanted to quit and go back home. Then the 2008 Olympics changed my whole life. Argentina called me to play for the team even though I wasn’t starting for Benfica.”

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A year spent attempting to settle in and gain experience saw him selected in Argentina’s Olympic squad for the following summer’s Beijing Games. After sweeping aside Ronaldinho’s Brazil in the semis, La Albiceleste found themselves facing Nigeria in the gold medal match at the Bird’s Nest stadium, the same place where Usain Bolt had stormed to a treble of golds a week before. 

With the game goalless midway through the second half, Di María would sprint away to latch on to Messi’s pass. “I will never forget that,” Di María said. “That tournament gave me the opportunity to play with Messi, the extra-terrestrial, the genius. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football. All I had to do was run into space. I would start running, and the ball would arrive at my feet. Like magic.”

Di María ran on to that Messi through ball and clipped it over the onrushing goalkeeper to net the only goal of the game and send Argentina’s 23-man squad home with gold around their necks. 

However, his club career was still a non-starter – quite literally. Neither José António Camacho or Quique Sánchez Flores gave him a regular spot in the Benfica side, but Jorge Jesus arrived at the club harbouring hope that he’d get the best out of this rough diamond. The squad was bolstered by the signings of Júlio César, Ramires and Javier Saviola and, boosted by an upturn in some players’ forms, Di María became pivotal.

Playing on the right, the Argentine was able to showcase his precise dribbling, his dynamite left foot and his ability to pull off the sublime. There were chips, rabonas, solo strikes and long-range curlers. He learned to lift his head up more, play in his teammates and engage in combinations. After two years dashed by inconsistency and a lack of opportunities, he became a key man. Maybe the key man.

The Primeira Liga title followed, as did another Taça de Portugal and a run to the Europa League quarter-finals. Then came the summer; one that included South Africa, Diego Maradona, Gabriel Heinze, Carlos Tevez and, eventually, Miroslav Klose, Arne Friedrich and Thomas Müller. Di María’s debut World Cup campaign ended with those four German goals in Cape Town, but the rise in his reputation saw no signs of stopping. “He is a spectacular player, who is growing day by day. He faces defenders continually and that’s what people pay for today in the world. I hope [Benfica] sell him for €200m and earn a lot of silver,” a perhaps unrealistic Maradona told Marca on the eve of the World Cup. 

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José Mourinho had already been an admirer. Fresh from winning the treble with Inter, Mourinho was charged with toppling Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona dynasty at Real Madrid, but he needed reinforcements. Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira’s performances for Germany in South Africa earned them a move to the Bernabéu before he brought trusted lieutenant Ricardo Carvalho from Chelsea. Di María was brought in for an eighth of Maradona’s predicted price in a deal worth just short of €40m. 

Los Blancos now had a grand Galáctico aura about them again. They had a superstar manager, world-class players and the glamour to go with it. When they went on the road, everyone wanted a glimpse of this exciting new project. Cameras were thrown in their faces, their every move excruciatingly analysed by the Spanish press. 

On his third LaLiga appearance, he scored the only goal of the game away at Real Sociedad when he wandered inside from his post on the left and swept the ball into the far top corner with his right foot. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín acknowledged the genius of the strike, even if Mourinho acted as if it hadn’t happened. His assistants Rui Faría and Aítor Karanka exchanged wide-eyed looks on the bench behind him. They had a special one on their books.

A honeymoon period saw Madrid win ten of their first 12 league games, until they travelled to the Camp Nou. Di María played the full 90 minutes in a famous 5-0 humiliation, one that must still haunt Mourinho, even if he says it doesn’t. They got their revenge in the Copa del Rey final at the Mestalla in April, however. A typically gruelling Mourinho match saw Di María cross for Ronaldo to head the winner during extra time, before tempers boiled over and Di María was sent off. 

A week later, he watched as Messi weaved his way past Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final Clásico. The last four proved a stern stumbling block to Mourinho’s Real Madrid. They broke the Barcelona dynasty in LaLiga in 2012 but went out to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals in Europe. Real were finding their tenth European crown particularly elusive and, in Mourinho’s final season in charge, they crumbled in Dortmund one step short of the Wembley final.

Carlo Ancelotti was tasked with mending a dressing room that had been ripped apart by his predecessor and was given the financial backing to dip into the transfer market. Other than the world-record arrival of Gareth Bale, there were the signings of Isco, Dani Carvajal and Asier Illarramendi that promised to fill the void left by the departing old guard. Kaká, Higuaín and Carvalho were among those to exit the club, while Özil left for Arsenal.

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Bale went straight into Ancelotti’s front three and, with Ronaldo and Benzema holding the other two forward places, it looked like Di María would have to settle for a bit-part role. However, after three years of working under Mourinho, the once frail but dazzling winger had added a combative side to his game. 

As the season wore on, he made himself at home on the left of a midfield three that included Luka Modrić and Xabi Alonso, providing the work-rate that maybe the other two couldn’t match. Add that willingness to track back to his creativity and attacking positioning and you had one of the most complete midfielders in the world. Two assists on the final day of the league season for Álvaro Morata saw him finish top of LaLiga’s charts in that discipline.

While Bale’s lung-busting run and finish is what the 2014 Copa del Rey final is remembered for, Di María was the man who put Los Blancos ahead in Valencia. He was also part of the team that reached the club’s first Champions League final for 12 years when Bayern fell foul of a 4-0 thrashing at the Allianz Arena in the semi-finals. It was in the final that they met Diego Simeone’s LaLiga winners Atlético Madrid, desperate to add Europe’s premier club competition to their trophy cabinet. 

You all know the story but it’s worth emphasising that, behind Ramos’s dramatic equaliser, Bale’s crucial finish and Ronaldo’s self-righteous penalty, Di María was named man of the match. He was everywhere. Perhaps most importantly of all, he was the one who strode past Juanfran out on the left, cut through the Atleti defence and fired a shot that Thibaut Courtois could only divert towards Bale. Di María’s momentum took him towards goal and he watched Bale leap to head one of the most important goals in Real Madrid’s history.

His face was on finally the front pages later that summer as his late winner against Switzerland in São Paulo propelled Argentina into the World Cup quarter-finals. His deflected pass fell to Higuaín, who powered a shot past Courtois in the last eight, was pivotal before the midfielder was forced off through injury. He missed the semi-final shoot-out win over the Netherlands but hoped to play in the grand finale. 

There were whispers, which soon turned into full-on allegations, that Florentino Pérez had sent a letter to Argentina ordering them not to play Di María in the final. He and the Argentine staff ignored the plea, but he wasn’t fit enough anyway. Germany took Argentina to extra-time in the final at the Maracanã, but there was no Di María to decide the game. Mario Götze denied Messi and co that night as their dynamic number 11 watched from the stands. That interference from Pérez signalled the beginning of the end for Di María at Real Madrid.

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The emerging star of that World Cup, James Rodríguez, was added to the Los Blancos squad shortly after the end of Colombia’s run to the quarter-finals at a cost of €76m. Many of the club’s fans argued that Di María was treated unfairly by a Real as he was shipped out to Manchester United at the end of August. “I never wanted to leave Madrid, Cristiano always supported me to stay,” Di María told Argentine radio station America afterwards. “Selling me was very good for Madrid to recover all they had spent.”

Di María’s year in England doesn’t warrant more than a couple of words, let alone a whole sentence, so we’ll move on. Paris Saint-German offered him the chance to escape Louis van Gaal’s clutches and he gleefully accepted. The most expensive British transfer of all-time forgotten in 12 months. 

To Premier League fans, he arose out of the murky darkness that is Ligue 1 in February 2017. Two goals, one a sensational free-kick against Barcelona, put him back on the world map, but then he was forgotten again, condemned to a mere opening chapter to Barcelona’s epic tale which climaxed with Sergi Roberto’s winner. 

Another year and a bit spent collecting medals in French football took him towards another World Cup. After starting the opening match against Iceland, Di María could only watch from the bench as Croatia threatened to pull the plug on his World Cup dream. He returned to the side during the 2-1 win over Nigeria and really hit the headlines against France in Kazan. That thunderous swing of a left foot made him the talking point of half-time discussions during the last-16 meeting, but Kylian Mbappé headed those conversations by the end.

Today, his picture is painted by a brush of negativity. His antics overshadowed an excellent performance at Old Trafford and invited the Champions League comeback that was to come in Paris. 

Ángel Di María is undeniably one of the great mercurial talents of his generation, but often consigned to an unwarranted reputation of arrogance and petulance. The truth is, if you strip away his personality, Real Madrid might not have lifted the heavy weight of La Décima off their shoulders; they might not have found the next three Champions League titles so hard to come by; and Ronaldo might not have had so many winners medals and individual accolades to his name. Oh, and Lionel Messi might’ve won a World Cup.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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