I remember getting the letter from Real Madrid and tearing it up before I even opened it.
It was the morning of the 2014 World Cup Final, at exactly 11 a.m., and I was sitting on the trainer’s table about to get an injection in my leg. I had torn my thigh muscle in the quarterfinals, but with painkillers, I could run without feeling anything. I told our trainers these exact words: “If I break, then let me keep breaking. I don’t care. I just want to be able to play.”
So I was putting ice on my leg when our team doctor, Daniel Martínez, came into the room holding this envelope, and he said, “Look, Ángel, this paper came from Real Madrid.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
He said, “Well, they’re saying you’re not in any condition to play. So they are forcing us to not let you play today.”
I immediately knew what was happening. Everybody had heard the rumors that Real wanted to sign James Rodríguez after the World Cup, and I knew that they were going to sell me to make room for him. So they didn’t want their asset to be damaged. It was that simple. That’s the business of football that people do not always see.
I told Daniel to give me the letter. I didn’t even open it. I just ripped it into pieces and said, “Throw it away. The one who decides here is me.”
I had not slept much the night before. Part of the reason was that the Brazilian fans were setting off huge fireworks outside of our hotel all night long, but even if it had been completely quiet, I don’t think I would’ve been able to sleep. It is impossible to explain the feeling you have on the night before a World Cup Final, when everything you ever dreamed about is right in front of your eyes.
I sincerely wanted to play that day even if it ended my career. But I also didn’t want to make things complicated for our team. So I woke up early that morning and went to see our manager, Mr. Sabella. We had a very close relationship, so if I told him that I wanted to start, I knew that he would feel the pressure to put me in. I told him sincerely, with my hand on my heart, that he should put in the player that he felt he had to put in.
I said, “If it’s me, it’s me. If it’s another, then it’s another. I just want to win the World Cup. If you call on me, I will play until I break.”
And then I started crying. I couldn’t help it. The moment had overwhelmed me.
When we had our team talk before the match, Sabella announced that Enzo Pérez was going to start, because he was 100% healthy. I was at peace with that decision. I treated myself with an injection before the match, and again during the second half, so that I would be ready to play if I was called from the bench.
But the call never came. We lost the World Cup, and I couldn’t control anything. It was the most difficult day of my life. After the match, the media were saying ugly things about why I didn’t play. But what I’m telling you is the absolute truth.
What still haunts me is the moment when I went to speak to Sabella, and I broke down in tears in front of him. Because I will always wonder if he thought that I was crying because I was nervous.
In truth, it had nothing to do with nerves. I was overcome with emotion because of how much the moment meant to me. We were so close to achieving the impossible dream.
The walls of our house were supposed to be white. But I never remember them being white. At first they were grey. Then they turned black from all the coal dust. My father was a coal worker, but not the kind in a mine. He actually made charcoal in the back of our house. Have you ever seen charcoal being made? The little bags you buy in the store for your barbeque, they come from somewhere, and honestly it’s a very dirty business. He used to work under this tin roof on our patio, bagging up all the pieces of charcoal to sell at the market. Well, it wasn’t just him. He had his little helpers, too. Before school, me and my little sister would wake up to help him. We were only like nine or 10 years old, which is the perfect age for bagging charcoal, because you can turn it into a little game. When the coal truck would come, we had to carry the bags through the living room and then out the front door, so our house basically turned black over time.
But that was the way that we put food on the table, and the way that my father had saved our house from being taken away.
See, for a little while, when I was a baby, my parents were doing well. But then my father had tried to do a good thing for someone, and it changed our lives. A friend asked him to sign as a guarantor for his house, and my dad trusted him. The guy ended up falling behind on his payments, and then he just disappeared one day. So the bank went straight to my father. He was stuck trying to pay for two houses, and feed his family.
His first business wasn’t actually charcoal. He had tried to turn the front room of our house into a little store. He would buy these big drums of bleach, chlorine, soap and all this cleaning stuff, and then he would divide it up into these little bottles of products and sell them out of our dining room. If you were living in our town, you didn’t go to the store to buy a bottle of CIF. That was way too expensive. You would just come see the Di Marias and my mom would sell you a bottle for a much better price.
It was all going pretty good until one day, their baby boy ruined everything by almost getting himself killed.
Yes, it’s true, I was a little son of a bitch!
I wasn’t really bad, but I just had so much energy. I was hyperactive. So one day my mom was selling in our “shop,” and I was in the walker playing around. The front gate was open so that the customers could come in, and my mom got distracted, and I started walking … I wanted to explore!
I walked right out into the middle of the street, and my mom had to sprint out to save me from being hit by a car. Apparently, it was pretty dramatic, from the way she tells it. That was the last day of The Di Maria’s Cleaning Shop. My mom told my dad that it was too dangerous, and we needed to find something else.
So that’s when he found out about this guy who would bring the coal trucks down from Santiago del Estero. But the funny thing is that we didn’t even have enough money to sell coal! My dad had to convince the guy to front him the first few shipments. So, whenever me or my sister wanted some candy or something, my dad loved to say, “I’m paying for two houses and a truck full of coal!”
I remember one day I was bagging up the charcoal with my dad, and it was really cold and raining. All we had was the tin roof over our heads. It was very hard. After a few hours, I got to go to school, where it was warm. My dad had to stay out there working, all day. Because if he didn’t sell that day, maybe we wouldn’t have enough to eat, seriously. But I remember thinking to myself, and sincerely believing it: At some point, everything is going to change for the good.
For this, I owe football everything.
Sometimes it pays off to be a little son of a bitch! I started football early, because I was driving my mother crazy. She actually took me to the doctor when I was four years old, and she said, “Doctor, he never stops running around. What do I do?”
And he was a good Argentine doctor, so of course he said, “What do you do? Football.”
So I started my football career.
I was obsessed. It’s all I did. I remember that I played so much football that every two months, my boots would literally break apart, and my mother would glue them together with POXI-ran, because we didn’t have the money to buy new ones. When I was seven years old, I must have been pretty good, because I scored 64 goals for my neighborhood team, and my mother came into my bedroom one day and said, “The radio station wants to talk to you.”
We went down to the station so they could interview me, and I was so shy that I could barely speak.
That year, my dad got a phone call from the youth coach of Rosario Central saying that they wanted me to play there. This was actually a very funny situation, because my father is a huge supporter of Newell’s Old Boys. My mother is the huge supporter of Central. If you’re not from Rosario, you can’t understand how passionate this rivalry is. It is like life and death. When the Classic was on, my mother and father would be screaming at the top of their lungs with every goal, and the winner would taunt the other one for a whole month about it.
So you can just imagine how excited my mom was when Central came calling for me.
My dad said, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s too far away. It’s nine kilometers! We don’t have a car! How will we get him there?”
And my mom said, “No, no, no! Don’t worry, I’ll take him! It’s no problem!”
And that is when Graciela was born.
Graciela was a rusty old yellow bicycle that my mother would use to drive me to training every day. It had a little basket in the front and a space for another person to sit in the back, but there was a problem, because my little sister had to come with us, too. So my father made this little wooden platform and attached it to the side of the bike, and that’s where my sister would sit.
So just imagine this: A woman biking through town with a little boy on the back and a little girl on the side, and a kit bag in the basket with my boots and some snacks. Up hills. Down hills. Through the dangerous neighborhoods. In the rain. In the cold. In the dark. It didn’t matter. My mother just kept pedaling.
Graciela got us where we needed to go.
But, the truth is that my time at Central was not easy. In fact, I would have quit football if it were not for my mother. Twice, in fact. When I was 15, I was still not growing, and I had a coach that was a bit nutty. He preferred players who were physical and aggressive, and that was just not my style. One day, I didn’t jump up for a header in the box, and at the end of training, he gathered all the players around and then he turned to me …
He said, “You’re a wussy. You’re a disgrace. You’re never going to amount to anything. You are going to be a failure.”
I was devastated. Before he even finished, I started crying in front of all my teammates, and I ran off the field.
When I got home, I went straight into my room to cry alone. My mother knew something was wrong, because every night when I got home from training, I would go and play more on the street. She came into my room and asked what was wrong, and I was sincerely afraid to tell her what really happened because I was worried she would bike all the way there and try to punch my coach. She was such a calm person, but if you did anything to her kids … Man! Start running!
I told her that I got into a fight, but she knew it was a lie. So she did what all mothers do in that situation — she called the mother of one of my teammates to find out the truth.
When she came back in the room, I was crying so much, and I told her that I wanted to quit playing football. The next day, I couldn’t even leave the house. I didn’t want to go to school. I was too humiliated. But then my mother sat down on my bed, and she said, “You’re going back, Ángel. You’re going back today. You need to go prove yourself to him.”
I went back to training that day, and the most incredible thing happened. My teammates didn’t make fun of me. They actually helped me. The ball would come into the air, and the defenders would let me win the header. They made sure that I was feeling good, and they really took care of me that day. Football is such a competitive game, especially in South America. Everyone is just trying to make it to a better life, you know? But I will always remember that day, because those teammates saw that I was suffering and they helped me.
Still, I was so small and so skinny. At 16, I still wasn’t in the senior team at Central, and my father was getting worried. We sat at the kitchen table one night, and he said, “You have three options: You can go to work with me. You can finish school. Or you can try one more year in football. But if it doesn’t work out, you have to come work with me.”
I didn’t say anything. It was a complicated situation. We needed money.
And then it was my mother who spoke up and said, “One more year in football.”
That was in January.
In December, the very last month … I made my debut for Central in the Primera División.
From that day, my sports life began. But in truth, the fight started so long before that. It started with my mother glueing my boots back together, and with her riding Graciela through the rain. Even when I made it as a professional in Argentina, it was still a fight. I don’t think people outside of South America can understand what it’s like. You have to live some of the experiences to believe it.
I will never forget when we had to play a Libertadores game in Colombia against Nacional, because air travel is not the same as in the Premier League or La Liga. It’s not even the same as when you play in Buenos Aires. Because back then, there was no international airport in Rosario. You showed up at the little airport, and whatever plane was there that day, you got on. You didn’t ask questions.
So we showed up for this flight to Colombia … and there was one of those huge cargo planes on the runway. You know the ones with the big ramp in the back that they use to ship cars and stuff? Well, that was our plane. I remember it was called “Hercules.”
The ramp came down, and the workers started loading all these mattresses into the plane.
And all the players were looking at one another like, What?
So we went to board the plane, and the workers were like, “No, guys, you go in the back. And here, take these headphones.”
They had to give us those huge military headphones to block out the noise. We climbed onto the platform, and there were a few seats and some mattresses for us to lie on. For eight hours. To a Libertadores match. They closed the ramp, and it got super dark. We were just lying there on the mattresses with our headphones on, and we can barely hear one another. The plane starts to take off, and we go sliding down the ramp a little bit, all the way to the back of the plane, and one of my teammates shouts, “Nobody touch the big red button! If that door opens, we’re all gone to shit!’
It was incredible. If you didn’t live it, you wouldn’t believe it. But you can ask my teammates. It really happened. That was our version of a private plane. Hercules!
Still, I look on that memory with a lot of happiness. When you’re trying to make it in football in Argentina, you have to do whatever it takes. Whatever plane shows up that day, you get on that plane, and you don’t ask questions.
Eventually, if you get the opportunity, you take the plane with a one-way ticket. For me, that opportunity was in Portugal with Benfica. Maybe some people look at my career and they think, “Wow, he went to Benfica, then Real Madrid, Manchester United, PSG,” and maybe it seems simple. But you can’t imagine how many things happened in between. When I got to Benfica, at age 19, I barely played for two seasons. My father gave up his job to move to Portugal with me, and he had to be separated by an ocean from my mother. There were nights when I heard him on the phone with my mom, and he was crying because he missed her so much.
At times, it seemed like a huge mistake. I wasn’t starting, and I wanted to quit and go back home.
Then the 2008 Olympics changed my whole life. Argentina called me to play for the team even though I wasn’t starting for Benfica. I will never forget that. That tournament gave me the opportunity to play with Leo Messi, the extraterrestrial, the genius. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football. All I had to do was run into space. I would start running, and the ball would arrive at my feet. Like magic.
Leo’s eyes don’t work like your eyes and my eyes work. They look side to side, like a human. But he’s also able to see the world from above, like a bird. I don’t understand how it’s possible.
We were able to make it all the way to the final against Nigeria, and it was probably the most incredible day of my life. To score the goal to win the gold medal for Argentina … you can’t even imagine that feeling.
You have to understand, I was 20 years old, and not even playing for Benfica. My family was separated. I was at a moment of hopelessness before Argentina called me for that tournament. In just two years, I won a gold medal, I started playing for Benfica, and then I got transfered to Real Madrid.
It was a moment of pride not just for me, but for my entire family and for all my friends and teammates who supported me over the years. They say that my father was an even better footballer than me, but he broke his knees when he was young, and his dream died. They say that my grandfather was even better than him, but he lost both of his legs in a train accident, and his dream died.
My dream was close to dying so many times.
But my father kept working under the tin roof … my mother kept pedaling … I kept running into space …
I don’t know if you believe in fate, but when I scored my first goal for Real Madrid, do you know the name of the team we were playing?
We came a long way.
So maybe you can understand now why I was crying in front of Sabella before the World Cup Final. I was not nervous. I was not worried about my career. I was not even worried about starting the match.
Hand on my heart, the truth is that I just wanted us to achieve our dream. I wanted us to be remembered as legends in our country. We were so close.…
That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to me when I see the reaction to our team in the media in Argentina. At times, the negativity and criticism is out of control. It is not healthy. We are all human beings, and we have things going on in our lives that people do not see.
In fact, just before the final qualifying games, I started seeing a psychologist. I was going through a difficult moment in my head, and usually I can rely on my family to get me through those times. But this time, the pressure was very intense with the national team, so I turned to a psychologist, and it really helped me. In the final two matches, I was much looser and more relaxed.
I reminded myself that I was part of one of the best teams in the world, and that I was playing for my country, living a dream I had as a child. Sometimes, as professionals, we can forget those simple facts.
The game became a game again.
I think that nowadays people look on Instagram or YouTube, and they see the results, but they don’t see the cost. They don’t know the journey. They see me holding my daughter and smiling with the Champions League trophy, and they think that everything is perfect. But they don’t know that just a year before the photo was taken, she was born premature and spent two months in the hospital, hooked up to tubes and wires.
Maybe they see a picture of me crying with the trophy, and they think that I’m crying because of football. But in reality, I am crying because my daughter is there in my arms to experience it with me.
They watch the World Cup Final, and all they see is a result.
But they don’t see how hard so many of us fought to get to that moment.
They don’t know about my living room walls turning from white to black.
They don’t know about my father working under a little tin roof.
They don’t know about my mother riding Graciela through the rain and the cold, for her children.
They don’t know about Hercules.