x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Aguero's waiting game

Marcotti's man The diminutive striker is flourishing at Atletico Madrid after being told to be patient in Argentina.

Sergio Aguero has developed into one of the most lethal strikers in the world.
Sergio Aguero has developed into one of the most lethal strikers in the world.

The dye was cast a long time ago. Way back on July 7, 2003, when Sergio Aguero came on as a substitute against San Lorenzo. That day, he became the youngest player to appear in Argentina's first division, breaking a record set by none other than Diego Armando Maradona 27 years earlier. He was 15 years and 35 days old, but it was not his age that made him remarkable as much as the fact that Independiente had the courage to break Maradona's record. Other wunderkinds had been held back out of deference towards El Diego. After all, who needs the pressure?

But there was little question among the Independiente coaching staff that the boy could handle it. And, in fact, there was a certain desire to get it out of the way. The hype over the precocious youngster who had won national titles with Independiente's academy had reached far and wide. And the club had just announced the sale of Gabriel Milito, the local hero: what better way to keep the support happy than by giving them a glimpse of the future?

And yet, that is all it was: a glimpse. Instability reigned at Independiente and the club's main concern was to avoid burnout. No sense throwing the boy to the lions: bring him along slowly, was the order from above. But by the end of the 2004 Aper-tura championship, none other than the legendary Cesar Menotti had turned him into a starter. An injury caused him to miss the beginning of the 2005 Clausura, but he returned for the end of the campaign, notching three goals in five games.

Off he went to the Under 20 World Cup in Holland, a few days after celebrating his 17th birthday. He did not play much, as a certain Lionel Messi (not the last time their paths would cross) stole the show, establishing himself as the tournament's top scorer and helping Argentina become the world champions. But his coach, Francisco Ferraro reminded him - and the countless members of the media who demanded to know why Aguero did not play - that his time would come at the next World Cup.

Of course, that was all well and good. But while he waited for the world stage, he was determined to make a difference here and now with Independiente. He scored 18 goals and established himself as the best striker in Argentina. Yet, despite waves of popular support, it was not enough for Jose Pekerman, the national team coach, to take him to the World Cup in Germany in 2006. Once again, despite his achievements, Aguero was told to wait. Just as he had in Holland, just as he did after making his precocious debut three years earlier.

Maybe that is why he embraced the opportunity of a move to Atletico Madrid, despite the fact that many advised him to wait a year or two before making the jump across the pond. He was tired of being told to be patient. And when he did make his exit, he did it in the most emphatic way: the ?20 million (Dh108m) price tag was a record for Argentine football. Sceptics abounded. This was a boy who had just turned 18 and had just one full season under his belt. He had yet to make his natio-nal team debut and, worst of all, the madhouse that is Atletico Madrid did not exactly seem like the ideal place in which to develop.

Aguero took his time that first season, finding his feet and frequently coming on as a substitute. But by the summer he was ready. He proved it in leading Argentina to the Under 20 World Cup, just as he had been promised two years earlier. He was the tournament's top scorer and was voted the best player to boot. Buoyed by that achievement, he enjoyed his best season in 2007/08. He scored 28 goals in all competitions, was the third-leading scorer in La Liga and finished runner-up as the best player in Spain. All of this, before his 20th birthday.

Last season he consolidated his place as one of the best young strikers in Europe: he scored 21 goals and, just as importantly, refined his partnership with Diego Forlan, to the point that the pair are now arguably the best strike force in Europe. Tonight they visit Valencia looking for more goals. On February 19, Aguero became a father, as his girlfriend, Giannina, who happens to be the daughter of Maradona (him again) gave birth to little Benjamin.

Geneticists everywhere immediately predicted greatness for the one-year old, something which few on this earth (apart, perhaps, from Jaden Agassi, whose parents are, of course, Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi) can relate to. At least, if Benjamin does turn to football, he will get plenty of advice on how to cope with the pressure of precocity from dad and grandpa. gmarcotti@thenational.ae