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'I don't feel any shame' - Gonzalo Higuain and the toxic world of football

13:31 BST 07/10/2022
Gonzalo Higuain Argentina HIC 16:9
In an exclusive interview with GOAL, the defiant Argentine opens up on the almost incessant abuse he received during his tumultuous career.

A few weeks before his tearful retirement announcement, Gonzalo Higuain is all smiles in Inter Miami's team hotel.

He enters the room, coffee in hand, draped in Inter Miami pink before sitting down.

"This will only take five minutes, right?," he says in English with a laugh.

No chance. How could anyone possibly dig into everything Higuain has seen and done in just five minutes?

As he heads towards retirement, Higuain will be remembered as one of the most prolific, and complicated, players of a generation.

He'll be remembered as an incredible goalscorer for club and country, as one of the best pure strikers the game has seen in quite some time.

But he'll also be remembered as perhaps the biggest victim of football's social media generation. He'll be remembered for his disappointments on the biggest stage, for his flaws, and for how the world was able to watch and criticize him in real time.

He'll be remembered as a player that fans, both of his clubs and their rivals, poked fun at time and time again no matter how many goals he scored or how many trophies he won.

Few people have ever had their biggest moments play out under such bright lights, and few have ever seen those bright moments become so dark with the swing of a leg.

So, what's it been like, for Gonzalo Higuain, and not just as a player, but as a human being?

"When I was a kid and I was outside with a football, I started playing it because of the love of the game," he tells GOAL. "I didn't do it because I wanted to be famous or anything like that.

"I played because of the passion that I had for the sport and I always had this dream of wanting to become a professional player but, in that moment, you didn't really know what that came with.

"When I was a kid, I hoped that when you grew up and you became a professional footballer, that you felt the same things, that it was very similar to the passion and love that you had when you're a kid playing football.

"But then you notice that it's not the same. The love for the sport is not the same because of many other things: money and finances, sporting directors and contracts, all of these things. Your life changes completely, so I had to live it.

"I've had many great experiences, some great ones, some not-so-great ones, to be able to get to this level."

Higuain is eager to talk about the great experiences, but also willing to dive into the tough times. Indeed, one of the most impressive things about him is how self-aware he is in an era where athletes are trained to be so insular.

The 34-year-old striker is well aware of the reputation that hangs over him to this day. While many of his peers constantly reiterate the point that they don't pay attention to journalists or social media, Higuain is willing to admit that he knows what some football fans view him as a 'choker' and that it does, in fact, bother him on a human level.

"I've had a life that hasn't been very normal," he says, "and for me, when people are talking about me without knowing me, insulting me, disrespecting me without knowing who I am, the tough thing is that I'm not able to react. They insult you when you cannot react and they offend you or disrespect you or your family. It's difficult.

"It's people that don't understand me and or know me and they think that because you make money, then they have the right to insult you. And the one thing is that, if you want to judge me or you want to criticize me, then you have to be ready to hear back from me.

"I'm tired of not being able to react and having to deal with this disrespect, especially when I'm with my family. And that's something that I want to stop: eating this sh*t and just having to pull back and receive this.

"This criticism and the disrespect, you're not able to react and that's something that most people don't understand, just how difficult that is."

Higuain is well aware that there are some that will never forgive him for his perceived failings on the big stage, and that's fine. The crucial misses for Argentina at the World Cup and Copa America – those moments are part of his story, he says.

But they're not the entire story. There are stories about goals, 364 of them to be exact, putting him right up there with the best to have done it. There are stories about trophies, lots of them, in La Liga and Serie A. There are Golden Boots and Team of the Season awards, too, as Higuain had the pleasure of shining brightly alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Those moments, he says, are the ones he looks back at most. There's no regret in him. Misses are misses, results are results, but achievements are also achievements, and Higuain is willing to put his up against anyone's.

"I've scored over 350 goals," he begins, "and people, not really everyone because now on social media everyone has a voice and it just seems like it's everyone, but when I'd be in the streets or on the pitch, I never get any of those comments that you then see on social media.

"In those moments, I suffer, but maybe without those bad moments, I wouldn't have enjoyed some of the success that I had later.

"Sometimes, you score three goals and miss the fourth and that's what they remember, but I'm more than proud and glad of the success that I had.

"From the bad moments you learn, you mature, you grow and I personally don't regret anything, and if I had those situations where I failed, it's because I was in the position to play in those finals.

"Sometimes, you lose. I lost many finals, Copa America and World Cup, and I had the bad luck of being the one that missed an important goal. Those were tough times, but then after that a year later, I was sold for 90 million euros to Juventus as the most expensive Argentinian ever.

"That's where you have to remember that nothing can distract you from your objective."

As he approaches retirement, Higuain is set to step away from the game as a legitimate legend. Whatever you say about his ups and downs, you can't deny his place in history, having lived so many big moments for some of the biggest clubs in the world.

But one of the most interesting things about Higuain is that he's set to step away as a star without a home.

Higuain's career was tumultuous, to say the least. At Real Madrid, he was often scapegoated despite scoring 121 goals in 264 games. Naples embraced him for a few years before his big move to Juve saw him go from hero to villain in the eyes of a city that puts its stars higher than most. The Juve move soured by the end, despite 55 goals over his first two seasons, and loans to AC Milan and Chelsea never quite fit.

In that context, Higuain is a footballer respected by many, but, perhaps, beloved by none.

Even in Argentina, he's the player often blamed for the national team's failure to capture a major trophy during the Messi Era before the PSG star helped lead the Higuain-less team to a triumph in the 2021 Copa America.

Some would expect that to sting Higuain, having to watch his longtime teammates finally break through without him, but the striker says he watched on as Argentina lifted that trophy with pride, not jealousy.

"I think it's more destiny," he says. "You could win or you could lose and, for us, we were fortunate to be able to play three finals and, unfortunately, we lost them. When I left the national team, they made this final at the Copa America and I was very happy.

"The medical team, the kit guys, Messi, Di Maria, Otamendi, Aguero – these are my friends. I was very happy for them to achieve that. I don't feel any shame."

Higuain has had a different career than, say, his brother Federico. The elder Higuain never reached the heights of his younger brother, but he is a popular figure stateside in Columbus, where he built a legacy with both a club and a community.

Higuain admits he was never able to do that. It didn't fit with his career plans or his path. He wanted to move around, try different things, challenge himself. At the time, he was always more worried about pushing himself, not necessarily becoming a local hero.

Even so, he does look back fondly. He says his time in Madrid, Naples and Turin all changed him, and he has everlasting memories of each club. He thinks back to the fans in Napoli cheering his name in that famous chant: 'GON-ZA-LO HI-GUA-IN!'

"Those are moments that are impossible to forget," he says. "It’s one of the most beautiful feelings you can have as a player and to feel a stadium full of people screaming your last name after a goal, with that energy – I get goosebumps thinking about it today. 

"But the opposite can also happen. Not everything is beautiful in football. One day 60,000 people are screaming your name. Fifteen days later, they might insult you. Things change quickly in football. Very quickly.

"So, over time, I tried to learn that praise doesn’t get me too high and criticism doesn’t get me too low. Try to find a balance. But without a doubt, they’re some of the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced in football.

"When they say your name, all those people, you feel like a star. They’re moments that you’ll always remember."

Higuain has found a new lease on life in Miami, with him crediting the MLS club with helping him rediscover his love for the game.

And it wasn't due to a lack of criticism throughout his time with the club. In his time in MLS, Higuain had seen his impact diminish to the point where he was relegated to the bench, a super-sub on a multi-million dollar contract looking set to end his career with a whimper.

But then everything changed. Higuain suddenly transformed back into that player that used to roam the front line for Madrid or Napoli or Juve. He turned back the clock in a way that made him one of the most exciting and inspiring storylines in MLS.

As he ran rampant to the tune of 14 goals in 15 games, Higuain was given the chance to write his own storybook ending in the MLS playoffs.

Somewhere in that span, Higuain found himself again and rediscovered his love for the game. It explains why those tears flowed so strongly at his retirement, why saying goodbye is going to be so hard.

So, what's next for Higuain? He isn't fully sure, but he does know that whatever it is will be far, far away from football.

"This league in this country has made me learn and realize how I'm able to enjoy everything that I wasn't able to do before," he says. "I love my daughter and my partner. My life revolves around them. They're the ones that are with me in good and bad times.

"In terms of other activities, I'd like to maybe explore the kitchen or maybe play guitar or learn English. But I don't have any intention of staying in football, at least in the short term.

"It's a world that every day becomes more and more toxic and I don't see myself in football once I stop playing. I want to be very far from the sport.

"Yes, I'll watch it, but I know what I experienced in this sport, and you can try to imagine it but I'm the only one that is actually able to know fully what I've lived.

"I think that it's just a world where I don't belong as much as I thought I did initially. I want to open my mind after football and enjoy my family and my life."

Shortly after that reflection, the interview wraps up and Higuain, once again all smiles, is ready to move on. He sticks around a while talking, joking, and laughing, before being whisked away.

He'll stick around as a player for a playoff run before his retirement becomes real and his career officially comes to an end. And, by and large, the perception of him probably won't change much.

Higuain will have no more chances to score goals, win trophies, or, more importantly, craft his legacy. He won't get another opportunity to play at a World Cup under the bright lights. He'll never get to atone for the misses that many will still associate him with all these years later.

But, in his eyes, his legacy is secure. All of these years after he first kicked that ball and fell in love, Higuain, perhaps improbably, remains in love with the game, having accomplished more than he ever could have imagined along the way.

"I'm proud of what I've achieved," he says. "I've played for the best clubs in the world. I played for the national team for nine years. I played in the World Cup, Champions Leagues, and I reached all the objectives that I aimed for in my career.

"Winning or losing is a consequence; the most important thing is the path, and that's something that people will never take from me. I've had a wonderful career."