Gonzalo Higuain will have to wait a little while longer for a reunion with Lionel Messi. The Napoli striker was left on the bench for his club’s friendly against Barcelona on Wednesday, while his Argentina team-mate did not even travel to Geneva for the game.
The pair had bonded during their country’s run to the final of this summer’s World Cup. They enjoyed playing together so much that Messi encouraged his employers to go out and sign Higuain. After Argentina’s group-stage win over Bosnia-Herzegovina, Messi said:
I don’t know Barcelona’s future plans, but I have talked about that with [Higuain] and the truth is that I would be very happy if he arrived and played on my team. We understand each other very well, and he is one of the best attackers in circulation.
There followed a period of intense speculation regarding Higuain’s future. Napoli responded by posting a tweet on their official account (in Italian), in which they insisted that any talk of a sale was utterly without foundation.
Higuain initially refused to comment, but before Argentina’s semi-final against Holland he told tuttomercatoweb.com that he was happy in Naples (quotes in Italian).
He expanded on that thought in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport this week, insisting that the only reason he took so long to dismiss the rumours was because he had bigger things on his mind.
"I've always told the truth, saying that I was focused on the World Cup and would go back to Napoli afterwards,” said Higuain (partial translation of interview available at Marca.com). "I think every player would love to play alongside a great champion [like Messi], but that doesn't mean I ever wanted to leave."
A more cynical observer might ask whether Higuain’s slow response was simply a matter of him testing the water—waiting to see whether Barcelona would come in with a bid.
It appears they never did, the player’s brother (and agent), Nicolas, telling Radio Crc in Naples that they had not received any contact from the Catalan club’s directors or manager (quotes in Italian).
Perhaps Barcelona were put off by the asking price, with Napoli’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, telling reporters last month that the player’s release clause was fixed at €100 million. But it seems more likely that Higuain was never at the top of the Blaugrana's shopping list in the first place, and especially not after they picked up Luis Suarez for a similarly vast sum of money.
Either way, Higuain ought not to feel disappointed. Napoli, despite winning that friendly on Wednesday, are not quite at Barcelona’s level just yet. But they probably are a better home for the striker right now.
It has taken him half a career to find a place where he is fully appreciated.
At River Plate he was still just a promising kid, one who disappeared before he had the chance to fulfil his potential. From there he went to Real Madrid, where he would spend the next six-and-a-half years failing to get the recognition he deserved.
At most clubs, 109 goals in 190 league games would be considered a highly impressive return (and those numbers start to look even better if you take out Higuain’s first two seasons in Spain, when he found the net just 10 times in 44 games).
But in Madrid expectations are different. Higuain was criticised for scoring too rarely in Europe and having a supposedly one-dimensional game.
He was always playing second (or third) fiddle to someone, whether it be Raul, Ruud van Nistelrooy or Cristiano Ronaldo. By the end, he was not even a guaranteed starter, enduring constant rotation with Karim Benzema.
In Naples, things would be different.
Higuain was not just a star but the star, the one around whom Napoli’s constellation of creative talents must orbit.
The club paid €37 million to get him, per transfermarkt.it, which was substantially more than anyone else was willing to offer, and hundreds of fans made the almost 150-mile journey to Rome just to greet him at the airport.
Another player might have struggled with the attention, not to mention the endless comparisons with Diego Maradona in Naples. Higuain, though, seemed to relish it. He finished the season with 27 goals in all competitions, including four in the Champions League—a tournament where he had previously found the net just eight times in 48 appearances.
In February he told reporters that he wanted to win the World Cup with Argentina and then the Scudetto with Napoli, just as Diego Maradona had done. Although he fell just short of the first goal, the second one remains very much up for grabs.
Napoli are not as far away from challenging for the Serie A title as last season’s 24-point gap to champions Juventus would suggest.
They beat the Bianconeri 2-0 at home in March, and—despite exiting in the group stage—put up a far more impressive showing than any of their Italian rivals in the Champions League.
Napoli's squad should be more settled this time around, whereas Juve will be adjusting to life under a new manager, Massimiliano Allegri.
Higuain, furthermore, is still just 26 years old. If his form of the last year continues, Messi might yet have time to persuade Barcelona’s directors to go back for another look. Until then, though, he should stop worrying about playing alongside a "great champion" and focus on becoming one himself.