It’s not always been this easy – you arrived at Real Madrid aged 19, having played only 31 league games as a professional. Were you too young? I don’t know about too young, but 19 is young to suddenly arrive in Europe, and the truth is that I came from having played very few games in Argentina and suddenly I’m at the biggest club in the world.
The advantage was that I came from a team that was similar: River Plate’s a club that’s used to winning things; a club where pressure is the same and the fans demand that you play well and score goals in every single game. That meant that I didn’t suffer as much as some players; Madrid is another dimension, but with the same basic ingredients.
Does having a footballing father help? He’s seen it before. Yes, I think so. We had confrontations, but that’s normal for a father and son. He didn’t want the bad things that happened to him to happen to me. There were things I struggled to understand because I was young, and at times there were arguments – in the good sense of the word. He’d tell me to look after myself, remind me that I am an elite player and that there are certain things I can’t do that maybe I wanted to. He played for 15 or 20 years and he had been through it. He also warned me not to read the press. A footballer knows when he has played well and when he has played badly.
But can you really ignore the media at a club like Real Madrid, where the pressure is so intense? It’s hard, very hard. Everything you do at a club like this has massive repercussions all over the world – the pressure is immense. But you have to keep a cool head. It’s very important. This is the biggest club in the world and every little thing you do gets analysed; everything has twice the impact it would somewhere else.
What did you think when Madrid spent €258m on new players? I knew it would be hard. But it’s important to always have faith in yourself. I always trusted in my possibilities and my chances and my talent... and look at me now: I’m playing, I’m scoring goals, I’m very happy.
It’s often said you’re better in epic situations, scoring late goals when it’s least expected... It’s important to have personality but I don’t know if it’s a case of enjoying epic situations, or of rising to the challenge when everything’s on the edge. Maybe it’s just that those opportunities presented themselves to me in those moments.
You scored on your Argentina debut, but it took a while to get a call-up. When you’re Argentinian and you don’t get called up, you’re sad. I was in a bad way when Maradona didn’t call me but I respected his decision and not getting in gave me that little extra motivation. In the end I got the chance – I got it late, but I got it... not late in the sense of me complaining; late in the sense that I waited a long time for it. Then when I got my chance, I took it. It’s a lovely feeling to score for the national team and it was vital we reached the World Cup finals.
What did you make of Maradona’s reaction after Argentina qualified? It was a situation... [big pause, blows out his cheeks] It became bigger than it should have been. The coach said what he thought at that precise moment and that’s it, full stop. We have to look forward, not back.
Did the players share his feelings, if not his words? You’d taken so many hits in the media... Exactly. All year, they’d attacked him and at that moment everything he had bottled up inside him came out; we felt that too.
So, how do you explain the fact that an Argentina side that should have qualified easily almost didn’t make it to the World Cup? That’s the point. That’s why I say there is criticism and criticism – good and bad. There’s analysis and then there are attacks. With such a good squad and a team that’s amongst the very best, we should have qualified more easily but, well, we’re there now. What’s done is done. There’s no point looking back.
But how do you explain the struggle to qualify? There are no excuses – we didn’t get things right. But we’re there now. Now we have work, work and work again – with intelligence and humility. We have to understand the coach and he has to understand us; we players have to get it right too. Of course it’s difficult, but Diego is an honest person and he always does the very best he can for the national team. It’s incredible to have him as coach.
Has one problem been Leo Messi’s failure to reproduce his club form? It’s a ridiculous debate because Leo always tries to do the best he can for the national team, the same as with Barcelona. It’s stupid that people question him – whenever he plays, he tries to give everything for Argentina.
Can Argentina really be favourites? Yes, definitely. We hope so; we think so. The group is difficult but we hope to get through it and I haven’t looked at the games after that. You can’t go mapping out a route to the final. Spain are very strong, Italy, France, Germany, Brazil – the teams that are always there. They’re all serious rivals but I think we have a genuine chance to win it.
And England? They have a good coach, who I worked with, and will be difficult. When Capello was at Madrid we were very compact, very serious, very committed. He demands real intensity and is very focused. He’s clearly done the same with the current England team.
Argentina, world champions; Higuain, the winner in the final. How does that sound? The business! That’d be a perfect ending. And that’s why I have to keep doing things right and working hard.
Interview: June 2010.