How do you solve a problem like Mauro Icardi?
For the Herald
The possibility of a call-up of the Inter Milan captain to the national team has divided fans neatly down the middle as other forwards struggle for form
It is an issue that divides Argentine soccer neatly down the middle. On one side stand those who believe that one of the most promising strikers in the game must be included in the national team’s plans, especially at a time when the Selección has been far from convincing in its most recent outings and even flirts with what would be a disastrous absence from the next World Cup. On the other, a vocal group that insists no matter how good a player may be, his questionable off-field activities preclude him from playing any part in what is, after all, a team game. This is no fringe organisation; among those luminaries who share such a belief are Diego Maradona and, according to all reports, Lionel Messi himself. And in the middle beleaguered Albiceleste coach Edgardo Bauza, under pressure after a less than brilliant start to life in one of the most demanding soccer environments in the world.
The man in question is, of course, Mauro Icardi. At 23 the Inter striker is a fantastic talent, quick, strong, lethal in front of goal and still young enough to improve over the coming years, although even at that tender age he can still boast no less than five fine seasons starring in Serie A. But for many he has an indelible mark against his name. His sole appearance for Argentina came at the end of 2013, a dead rubber World Cup qualifier against Uruguay which if nothing else, ensured that Italy could not take advantage of his dual nationality and make him the latest of the countless Oriundi that have switched allegiances over the decades. That solitary cap has nothing to do with his performances. Just months later Icardi engaged in a public romance with Wanda Nara, the model ex-wife of fellow soccer player Maxi López.
By all accounts the couple had already split when Cupid struck again, but it mattered not. The fact Icardi and López were close friends beforehand and shared family holidays meant he was branded a traitor, a man not to be trusted in the dressing-room. And such a perception was held most strongly in the Argentina ranks, led by another man with extremely tight bonds to López Messi himself.
In the past week, however, Bauza gave the first indications that Icardi’s luck might be turning. The coach met with the striker in Milan along with the rest of the club’s sizeable Argentine contingent, and was in the stands on Sunday to watch Icardi and Inter go down 1-0 against Juventus. It was far from his best performance, but with 17 goals already this season in a team that has been far from stable, he has little need to restate his value on the pitch. Such is the ill-feeling, however, that even Bauza’s seemingly innocuous visit attracted vicious criticism. Leading the way was Maradona, whose own rather patchy off-field record during his playing days has not served as a barrier for him to pass judgement on the Icardi case.
“If Bauza met with Icardi, he is just as much of a traitor as Icardi is,” the idol fired during an interview with ESPN. That is the view of a past hero, but what of the present? The coach insists that contrary to popular perceptions, no player is a persona non grata in the Albiceleste squad. “Pick whoever you want,” was the message he relayed back to Olé from the team on taking over from Gerardo Martino, having heard that neither Icardi nor Carlos Tevez would be accepted. “[The team] told me: ‘We don’t have a problem with anyone and if we do, we take him aside and sort it out between us.’” That assertion does not quite chime in with the three years the youngster has spent in the international wilderness but if true, it is welcome news.
There is no shortage of forwards in the Argentina team. Making them play together, however, is another matter. Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero have demonstrated in recent years that their playing styles clash rather than complement, while the latter is desperately short of goals and form in his club. Lucas Pratto has impressed since coming into Bauza’s plans but he is hardly a long-term solution; another Lucas, River’s Alario, has some way to go and is unproven in European soccer still. That leaves Messi up front with ample space to fill alongside Barcelona’s wizard. Icardi knows what he is doing at the top level, and can score goals even in a struggling team. His continued absence at this point is already incomprehensible, even more so when one considers that Ever Banega, Argentina’s best creative option in the midfield, plays alongside the forward at Inter and that the pair have struck up a fine partnership.
Currently fifth in the World Cup qualifying standings, Argentina resumes its campaign in March with two tough challenges. A home clash against Copa América holders Chile is followed rapidly by one of the most daunting clashes on the South American calendar: Bolivia away from home in the suffocating altitude of La Paz. There is no margin for error, and anything less than four points from the fixtures will be seen as a damaging failure. More than anything the Albiceleste need goals, and traitor or not, Mauro Icardi has proven time and again that he deserves to end his Argentina exile and return to the fold.