When the whistle blew at the end of the final of last year's Copa America, the entire triumphant Argentina ran to Lionel Messi. Argentina had beaten Brazil 1-0 to win their first senior title in 28 years. But at that moment it seemed more important that Messi had finally got his hands on some senior silverware with his country. It was truly Messi's moment -- overshadowing the man who scored the only goal of the game.
But Angel Di Maria seems quite happy to be in the shadow. In the history of the game it is hard to think of an attacking talent who combines an extraordinary CV with such a lack of ego. He left Rosario Central as a teenager, after helping Argentina win the 2007 Under-20 World Cup, where, as if getting used to his future role, he was seen as part of the supporting cast of Sergio Aguero. Subsequently he has played for Benfica, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and now Juventus -- five giant clubs in five different countries.
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His time at United did not go anything like as well as hoped, but maybe that had more to do with the problems of the club than it did with Di Maria. Because everywhere he has gone he has sought to give value for money. He has won league titles in three countries, and was a key part of Real Madrid's Champions League triumph in 2014.
Di Maria is an old fashioned, "charge at them" winger who is happy to cover the ground, but equally talented and versatile to carry out some of the more mundane tasks of a midfielder. This is his fourth World Cup and surely his last. Argentina will miss him. Messi will miss him.
Before last year's Copa, Messi's biggest success with Argentina came in the 2008 Olympics, an Under-23 competition with three over-age players allowed. Argentina won the gold medal, beating Nigeria 1-0 in the final. And who scored the only goal of the game? Of course, it was Di Maria, who, just as he was to do against Brazil thirteen years later, raced past the defensive line to beat the keeper with a cool finish.
Argentina can look back with regret at how close they came to winning the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. They will wince at Mario Gotze's late goal, which won the game and the title for Germany. They will squirm at earlier misses from Gonzalo Higuain and Rodrigo Palacios. But the real moment when their World Cup challenge lost steam came a couple of rounds earlier, when Di Maria picked up an injury that ruled him out of the rest of the tournament.
The team squeezed past Switzerland in the second round of that tournament. Right at the end of extra time, Di Maria scored the only goal of the game, rounding off a run and lay off from Messi with a cute shot across into the far corner. In the quarterfinal against Belgium he received a ball from Messi and slipped through a pass that Higuain finished on the swivel. But a few minutes later he pulled up with an injury and was forced off. His World Cup was over -- and so was Argentina's attacking potency. They did not score again in the competition.
Di Maria hit a screamer in defeat to France at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But at that point few would have imagined that he would still be around for Qatar -- especially after what Argentina's dreadful performance at the 2019 Copa America. Lionel Scaloni, at that time merely a caretaker coach, had been heavily influenced by the rapid transitions of France. He tried to set Argentina up in a similar way, and it didn't work -- predictably, because it did not suit the characteristics of the players -- and Colombia picked them off on the way to a 2-0 win in the group stage.
Isolated on the left wing, Di Maria took much of the blame, although he was replaced at halftime with the game still goalless. The team responded by moving to something more compact and functional, and Di Maria did not start another game. At this point it looked as if his international career was over, especially when he was left out of the first two rounds of World Cup qualifiers.
But Scaloni showed the virtue of an open mind, and felt that the player's club form warranted a recall for the next two rounds. It was not initially a popular decision. Di Maria was gently re-introduced to the team off the bench. But by the fifth round he was ready to start once more, and as the team started to gel, he became the joker in the pack, the man who could flit around the team's structure dropping bombs on the opposing defence.
Argentina set up with a midfield trio behind the killer partnership of Messi and centre-forward Lautaro Martinez. This leaves Di Maria free to attack space down either flank, to find little pockets of space from which to work his magic. Even if the spotlight falls so inevitably on Messi, Di Maria's winning goal in the 2021 Copa America makes him a national hero -- and he was also seen to good effect in the 3-0 win of Italy at Wembley in June.
The decisive goal in Argentina's win was the second, on the verge of halftime, when he latched on to a Martinez through ball to go clean through on the keeper, and score yet again.
In a scenario where there has been so little national team football between Europe and South America, that Argentina win sent confidence soaring, and left spectators with the impression that this was the best collective unit that Messi has ever been part of when playing for his country.
Over the next few weeks, then, Messi may well have his best ever chance of winning the World Cup. If he does, it is a fair bet that Di Maria will be part of the story.