A little late in coming, but with two weeks remaining of the Torneo Clausura, which will be followed by Argentina’s final World Cup qualifiers of the season, it’s time to list the nominees for the second annual HEGS Award for Best Argentine Footballer in a Foreign League! Nominations were very narrowly spread this season, and we have only three nominees. To meet them, in alphabetical order, read on, and don’t forget to send your vote (one each, previous nominations will not be counted again so you need to vote again if you emailed me a nomination) to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘HEGS Awards’ in the subject line. Voting will close at midnight after the end of the Clausura.
Sergio Agüero (Atlético de Madrid, Spain)
It takes a special kind of player to move to La Liga at the age of 18, and make the step up look manageable, but Sergio Agüero did that two years ago, scoring in his first start, and he hasn’t looked back. At the end of the 2006-2007 season, the Spanish could tell he was something special. It was only this season, however, that it became apparent just how special he might become.
Because managing the pressure of a new league and a change of continent is one thing, but becoming a key player for a big club is quite another. When that club qualify for the Champions League for the first time in over a decade, people take some notice. And when the club in question are Atlético de Madrid, things become scarcely believable. Agüero has managed an awful lot this season with his fellow Argentines Maxi Rodríguez on the wing and Leo Franco in goal, but fittingly it’s a fellow Independiente striker who he’s most notably linked up with; Uruguayan Diego Forlán, who joined Manchester United before El Kun broke through to the Independiente first team, but now finds himself united at last in a partnership some have called the club’s best ever strike force.
Alongside Forlán, Agüero has bagged 27 goals in all competitions – the leading Argentine scorer in the world this season – as well as numerous assists. His personal high point of the season came in March against Barcelona in the Vicente Calderón, when he scored twice and set two up as Atlético demolished the Cataláns 4-2. 19 goals in the league made him the side’s top scorer, and despite his tender years, only Forlán and Pablo played more minutes for the club. One for the future, for sure – but for the present, too.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Spain)
Last year’s winner by a mile is nominated again in 2008, in spite of his forced absence through injury for a chunk of the season. That Barcelona did quite as poorly as they did this season (just a Champions League semi-final and a ‘terrible’ third-place finish in La Liga clearly aren’t good enough) was blamed by many on the absence of Messi for key periods of the season, not least a large chunk of the second half of the season when no-one seemed to really want to win the title.
The injuries have meant Messi hasn’t had the same impact in 2007-2008 that he did in the (personally) astonishing 2006-2007 campaign, but his form in the first half of the season ensured that the Camp Nou faithful are looking to the summer longing to see the back of Ronaldinho, rather than lamenting the Brazilian’s absence and wondering where a replacement could possibly come from. When I had the pleasure of first seeing him in the flesh, at home against Sevilla in September, he scored twice late on – one a brilliant flick-and-volley (34 seconds into the video below), the other a hugely significant penalty – and was substituted late on with 77,000 of his own side’s fans chanting ‘Messi, Messi Messi!’ as he left the pitch. A week later, I was in the crowd taking the photo above as he laid on two goals for Thierry Henry (who scored a hat-trick that day) before, five minutes into the second half, scoring a brilliant solo effort to put Barcelona 4-0 up away from home against Levante. He was immediately withdrawn, and this time it was the opposition’s fans chanting his name as he left the pitch. When that happens, you know he’s special.
Until injury ruled him out of both legs of the quarter-final, allowing Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo to catch him, Messi was the top scorer in the Champions League, and although Barcelona lost 1-0 on aggregate to the eventual champions, his performance over both legs against United in the semi-final – immediately after coming back from a long-term injury layoff – gave the lie to constant British media hype telling us the Portugese winger is the best player in the world. 16 goals in all competitions, in spite of missing a third of the season, tell us part of the story. That he was one of a handful of Barca players not held accountable for the club’s season arguably says even more.
Carlos Tevez (Manchester United, England)
For an Argentine to travel to England and win the hearts of the home crowd isn’t an easy task. To do that and then move to another English club and do the same thing again is harder still. And when the second of those clubs are Manchester United, and you’re a key player in one of their most successful seasons ever…
Tevez’s United debut was the cause of small businesses shutting early and people staying in to watch on the TV or listen on the radio all over Buenos Aires. Tevez probably more than any other player at present is a man Argentines identify with as ‘one of them’, and for one of them to be playing for one of the biggest clubs in the nation which gave football to the world is a source of major pride. For West Ham the previous term, he’d taken a while to get into the swing of goalscoring. Not this time. His first goal came at Old Trafford just a few weeks into the season, during the 2-0 defeat of Chelsea, and it marked the beginning of a season full of important goals at crucial junctures for the Red Devils. His 19 strikes in all competitions included vital late equalisers against Tottenham Hotspur and Blackburn Rovers as the season moved towards its climax, a late late leveller in the first leg the Champions League last 16 tie against Lyon, the winner-on-the-night which put the quarter-final with Roma beyond doubt in the second leg, and in the penultimate match of the league season, a scorching thirty-yarder against his former club West Ham, which he was gentleman enough not to celebrate. At the end of the season, he became the first Argentine ever to have won both the Copa Libertadores and the European Cup / Champions League.
When Manchester United agreed his loan from Kia Joorabchian and the other businessmen who still hold Carlitos’s registration, some fans expressed concerns as to whether Tevez and Wayne Rooney could play alongside each other. At the end of the second most successful season in the club’s history, the two, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, are being compared with United’s ‘Holy Trinity’ of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, and everyone linked with United is hoping the club can secure Tevez on a permanent deal. Now, who says South Americans can’t hack it in England?
Once again: your vote should go to email@example.com, with ‘HEGS Award’ in the subject line.