Words: Max Freeman-Mills 
Images: Offside Sports Photography

Look at the ridiculously excitable fervour that Decibel Bellini, Napoli’s stadium announcer, feels at the big man popping a goal in. Listen to that call-and-response, surely one of the very best ever. It’s a shame for Gonzalo that the very same bundle of 60,000-odd Neapolitans now hate him with equal or maybe even more depth.

Higuaín has gone through a career with massively impressive goal-scoring records at a succession of really quite significant clubs—from River Plate to Real Madrid, Napoli and Juve. He’s slowed ever so slightly so far for a so-so AC Milan team, but still,for all his consistency, for all his efficiency, why doesn’t anyone seem to actually like him?

From an off-field perspective, Higuaín seems unremarkable, but surely not to a fault. It’s not a sin, in football of all places, to be boring, or at least not quirky and lacking the Ben Mendy japes that everyone seems to love so much. He gives the occasional interview, but mostly just talks about goals, scoring goals, shooting at goal, and that’s about it. Which, again, is so standard that it surely can’t be his downfall.

In fairness, on the pitch, the Spanish section of Higuaín’s career feels like a bit of a moot point. Madrid journalists were baffled by the internal intrigue at the Bernabéu regarding his worth. Or, if not surprised by the idea of gossip, possibly by the bloody-mindedness of it all. The club signed Benzema to either replace or pressurise Higuaín and then proceeded to borderline brief confused journalists on why the Frenchman was the smarter long-term option for the team.

That’s the sort of employment situation that’s basically untenable; in many other walks of life there’d have been a tribunal coming down the pike, for sure. The announcer at the Bernabéu once called a Higuaín goal by saying that the striker had “finally” scored. Hardly what you’d call a supportive work environment. But footballers are subject to an odd lack of pity when it comes to bullying in the workplace, aren’t they?

Yet even at Madrid, this was a player with a lot in his locker. Dinked finishes all over the place, the ability to crash in powerful shots when needed. Many players are subject to odd vendettas at Real Madrid, and never taken in by a fanbase that can be brutally harsh on its own; when Cristiano’s getting whistled at literally any stage, you know the expectations are fairly high.

For Higuaín, though, it seems to have been a career-long malaise. He only made 31 appearances for River Plate in Argentina before being snapped up by Madrid like a prototypical Vinícius Júnior or Martin Ødegaard. No one becomes “one of our own” in 31 games, even with a very nice 13 goals in that time. Madrid ended up being no home for old Gonzalo even over half a decade, and he was eventually shipped off to Napoli, a move that was met with some doubt at the time.

But then, as Decibel Bellini proved on many occasions, he found a level and a club that was arguably perfect for him. 92 goals in 147 games for Napoli, unbelievable numbers, and stats that helped to rejuvenate a giant club that had spent too long letting Juve do whatever they wanted. The love of the crowd was in touching distance for Gonzalo at last, and he won the Coppa Italia with the club in 2014.

And then, the single biggest hint as to the lack of footballing love in his life—he upped and left. Juventus did their big-club/small-league thing and realised that if they bought him they were pretty much guaranteed domestic success, and Gonzalo thought trophies sounded nice, and he went. It’s happened before, and will absolutely happen again, but that doesn’t stop it being infuriating for fans and neutrals. Stay and become a club legend, leave and get more trophies. Both choices are right, but Gonzalo made the cynical one, and what goes around arguably does come around.

So he stayed in Serie A, now in black and white, and his scoring rate went from 0.62 per game to 0.52, but it didn’t really matter, because he won two league titles and another two Coppa Italia. Well, fair enough. Except Juve are a big club, and when you’re at Higuaín’s age you can’t necessarily demand loyalty; enter Cristiano. There’s only room for one increasingly immobile but incredibly efficient centre forward in Turin, and it’s probably going to be the one who’s the best in the world at it, the one who can completely change the marketing makeup of a club overnight, not Gonzalo.

With sad inevitability, the man who left a club that might have loved him was turfed out. Higuaín seems to have achieved all he’s likely to in Serie A, but where does that leave him? He wants away from Milan and Chelsea are apparently interested in signing him, but their fans are largely lukewarm on the idea, too.

And maybe that’s justified—even at his absolute best, does Higuaín ever inspire? Does he give faith that he’ll pull the team through? Typically he’ll jog around, maybe remonstrate with an official or two. No service means no Gonzalo, so don’t expect him to grab a game by the scruff of the neck. And he’s starting to get scruffy, too—a man who clearly cannot have gone to seed, given the exercise he’s literally constantly doing, yet who still looks like he’s a little past it. He’s not Charlie Adam, but he’s also not the chiselled, taut player others his age still look like. Maybe all it would take is a penchant for tighter kits, not the baggy style he prefers, and we’d all think of Higuaín as completely shredded.

This is a player who’s won big leagues, who’s scored big goals. Yet inescapably, his reputation seems cemented as a nearly man, even despite his record. The player who will do, but isn’t the right long-term option. It doesn’t help that one of his most memorable performances came on the biggest stage, as he failed to contribute anything positive to Argentina’s World Cup Final appearance in 2014, effectively letting down the best player in history, Messi, in his maniacal quest to finally cement his place at the game’s peak. Gonzalo’s a bloody good player, yeah, but he’s one who doesn’t give the impression of having historic performances in him.

But then, the goals. They don’t go away, and some of them are genuinely memorable, even if the man himself isn’t. This swivel and bikey against the leading lights of Frosinone. The bring-down and hooked finish of this effort against Zaragoza. A completely bananas scissor kick on the fly to peg back Levante. These are not the finishes of a pedestrian goal merchant, they’re artistic, brutalist works. They stand as evidence that Higuaín is a player who could be so much more if he finds the fanbase and the home he needs. He’s running out of time, but who knows? Maybe returning to the loving, cig-smelling arms of Sarri might be the way.

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