Angel in the Midfield

Angel di Maria is Argentina’s indispensable link between defense and attack

Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella was terrified. Watching the Champions League final, he held his breath every time an Atlético Madrid player fouled one of his essential players, Angel di Maria, which they did repeatedly. By the end of the game, three Atlético players had been booked for their offenses.

Under Sabella, Di Maria has become the link between Argentina’s defense and attack. And while Lionel Messi saved his legs during the latter stages of the club season, eventually apologizing to Barcelona fans, Di Maria was playing his heart out for Real Madrid. No wonder Sabella was so anxious.

Di Maria’s nickname is Fideo, the Noodle. He is both an artist and a fighter. Growing up in the Perdriel neighbourhood of Rosario, he was noticed at the age of seven playing for a tiny local team. Angel Tulio Zof, the Rosario Central legend who played for the team in the 1950s and had no fewer than 14 stints as coach there, immediately saw Di Maria’s potential, and the club signed him for 30 footballs. The child now had to train on the other side of town, and he rode his bicycle, with his mother, more than half an hour in each direction for the next seven years.

His father, Miguel, had also been a talented player himself, but a knee injury forced him to retire before he made it into River Plate’s first team, and he found work in a coal yard. Young Angel shared a room with his two sisters, and understood at an early age that soccer was his best chance for a better life.

Messi, who was also born in Rosario but grew up in a middle class family, admired Diego Maradona as a boy. Di Maria’s idol was Kily Gonzalez. He watched the midfielder play for Rosario Central in 1995, and then became his teammate him when Tulio Zof promoted Di Maria to the first team at the age of 17. Gonzalez had just returned to his beloved club after ten successful years at Zaragoza, Valencia, and Inter, and he became a mentor to the youngster.

Speaking to Real Madrid TV a few years ago, Di Maria recalled how Gonzalez became angry at him during a game when he didn’t help defend on the flank. “Those are things that you never forget,” he said. Now, Di Maria is tireless in defense, which makes him popular with coaches and teammates.

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La LigaHe continued to give his all in each game, quickly gaining the respect of new coach Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian moved him to central midfield in January, when Bale started playing on the right—a bonus for Argentina, since Di Maria plays in the very same position for the national team.

Kurban Berdyev, the legendary coach at Rubin Kazan, appreciates hard work and disciplined players, and wanted to bring Di Maria to Russia in 2007. The contract was nearly signed before Di Maria decided to join Benfica instead. Within three years, he had won a league title and lifted two cups in Portugal. Jose Mourinho came calling.

In one of his first chats with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, Mourinho said, “We have to sign a full back, a midfielder, and Di Maria.” Los Blancos eventually paid 25 million euros for the Argentine services, and he was a Mourinho favorite from the beginning, becoming so associated with the Mourinho regime that Madrid wanted to let him go when the coach left last summer.

The Argentine made it clear that he didn’t want to leave, but the real reason behind his stance was not well publicized. Last September, he said he wanted to stay in Madrid because his daughter had been born three months premature and was being kept in an intensive care unit at a Madrid hospital. Angel didn’t let the personal drama influence his performances on the pitch, and even scored the winner in the derby versus Atlético just five days after she was born, but the stress was immense.

The couple rarely talked about their difficulties, but the club knew everything about the situation. With the child in hospital, it was obvious that a move to another country would be out of question for Di Maria. Still, Real negotiated his departure with various suitors, including Tottenham as part of the Bale deal. Di Maria was displeased with this, but he never criticized the club in public.

Quite the contrary. He continued to give his all in each game, quickly gaining the respect of new coach Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian moved him to central midfield in January, when Bale started playing on the right—a bonus for Argentina, since Di Maria plays in the very same position for the national team.

Di Maria was phenomenal against Barcelona in the league, setting up two goals for Karim Benzema, even though the Catalans eventually won 4–3, and he scored the opener in the Copa del Rey final against Barça on the way to lifting the trophy. His last game, in the Champions League final, was his best—despite Sabella’s indigestion—and Angel was deservedly named Man of the Match after an exquisite performance that saw him set up the winner for Bale in extra time. Kily Gonzalez lost two Champions League finals with Valencia in 2000 and 2001; Di Maria went one better than his idol on the first attempt.

In the meantime, Mia survived the scare. On her first birthday in April, Jorgelina di Maria published photos of her on Instagram, writing, “Nobody but Dad and I know how painful it was to see your face covered with medical cables. There is nothing sadder than to go home from the hospital with empty arms. Tears soaked our pillows every night. And now we can say that you are a strong, healthy, happy girl. You won the battle for your life, for our lives.”

In other words, Mia’s a fighter, like her father.

As far as football is concerned, Di Maria has cried only once, when injury prevented him from playing in the final at World Youth Championships in 2007. He scored three goals in the tournament but came off in the semifinal against Chile. A year later, he played in the final at the Olympic games and scored the winner in a 1–0 triumph over Nigeria. And now, after the disappointment in South Africa four years ago, he is going for the big prize. “We should be ready to die on the pitch,” Di Maria says. That’s the way he always plays, and that’s why he will be so important to Argentina’s chances in Brazil.