Ángel Di María: The Quintessential Big Game Player

The largest city in the province of Santa Fe, Rosario has bore witness to a treasure trove of world-class footballers ranging from Lionel Messi to Mauro Icardi to Éver Banega to Ángel Correa. One of the many names who has emerged from the cradle of Argentine football is none other than Ángel Di María.


Born on February 14, 1988, Di María was unusually active as a child and, on the recommendation of a doctor, signed up for football at the age of three. His hyperactivity would nearly prove fatal — Di María’s father had tried to turn the front room of their house into a store, buying massive drums of bleach, chlorine and other cleaning supplies, dividing them into smaller bottles and selling them out of the dining room.


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One day, whilst his mother was helping customers, Di María wandered out into the street in his stroller and nearly got himself killed, only for his mother to sprint out and save him from getting hit by a car. In need of a different source of money, they decided to start a charcoal business. Before going to school, he and his two sisters would help their father bag charcoal so that he could sell it at the market.


Times were tough for the Di María family — unable to purchase new football boots, his mother would have to glue his cleats together every few months after they broke apart. Football was his only way out of poverty, and as such, he strived towards becoming the best footballer possible, working his way through the academy ranks at Rosario Central.


At 16 years of age, his father gave him an ultimatum: return to school, work for him, or break into the first team set up within a year. In the very last month of their agreement, Di María would make his professional debut — the first signs of a clutch gene that would quickly become a common theme throughout his footballing career. In total, he would score 6 goals and 2 assists for Canalla before jetting off for Canada in the summer of 2007 to represent his country in the U-20 World Cup.


Playing alongside the likes of Banega, Sergio Agüero, Sergio Romero and Papu Gómez, Di María excelled throughout the competition as Argentina won the championship, and his breakthrough tournament would draw attention from various clubs like Arsenal and Boca Juniors.



Instead, it was Benfica who won the race for him, paying €6 million for 80% of his sporting rights and 50% of the sports rights of Andrés Díaz. One year later, the Portuguese club paid an extra €2 million for the remaining 20%, but re-sold 10% to Jorge Mendes’ GestiFute agency.


After making the move to Benfica, he asked his father not to work any more and decided to purchase a house for his parents and sister. He was signed as a replacement for Benfica’s departing captain Simão Sabrosa, who joined Atlético Madrid, and his first season in Lisbon would see him register 1 goal and 6 assists in 45 appearances before following that up with 4 goals and 3 assists in 34 appearances.



The summer of 2009 would mark a transition for Benfica, with Jorge Jesus taking charge and guiding them to their first league title in five years. He set up in a 4-1-3-2 formation, with Javier Saviola and Óscar Cardozo operating as the two strikers, Pablo Aimar playing as the #10, and Javi García sitting back as the defensive midfielder. One of the wingers — Ramires — would provide defensive cover, whilst the other — Di María — would help conduct the counter-attacks.


Di María thrived in this fast-paced, counter-attacking style of football, scoring 10 goals and 19 assists in 45 appearances, leading Benfica to a second-straight Taça da Liga title and earning a call-up to the 2010 World Cup. He would score his debut international goal in a 5-0 thrashing of Canada, and he utilized this momentum under Diego Maradona by playing in all five of their matches, starting four, as Argentina fell in the quarterfinals to Germany.


After returning from South Africa, he would not head back to Portugal, but instead, the other side of Iberia, with Real Madrid paying €25 million plus €11 million in add-ons. His start to life in Spain was marked by inconsistent performances and a lack of discipline, but he would nevertheless manage to turn things around in 2011/12 and become a key figure under José Mourinho.


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Starting ahead of the likes of Kaká and Mesut Özil, Di María would play a vital role for Real as they put an end to Barcelona’s dynasty under Pep Guardiola and claimed the 2011/12 La Liga title with an astonishing 100 points. The Argentine continued his impressive performances under Carlo Ancelotti, finishing as the top assist provider in La Liga with 17 and excelling as an attacking midfielder in their 4-3-3 alongside Luka Modrić and Xabi Alonso, whilst he would also open the scoring in their 2-1 win vs. Barcelona in the Copa del Rey Final.


One month later, he returned to the Estádio da Luz and delivered a Man of the Match display in the UEFA Champions League Final. After Sergio Ramos’ 93rd-minute equalizer forced extra time, Di María would dribble past three Atlético Madrid players and fire a shot towards Thibaut Courtois, which was deflected into the path of Gareth Bale who headed home in the 110th minute. Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo would seal the deal in the final minutes as Los Blancos claimed La Décima, ending a 12-year wait for the Champions League trophy.


Di María would head to Brazil and star for the Albiceleste in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, scoring the sole goal of the match in the 118th minute to lead them to a 1-0 victory vs. Switzerland, whilst the following match would see him assist Gonzalo Higuaín’s goal vs. Belgium. Di María would not last the full quarterfinal, however, suffering a muscle tear in his thigh and missing the rest of the tournament as Argentina narrowly missed out on the trophy to Germany.



With Real Madrid adding Toni Kroos and James Rodríguez to their squad, playing time would become harder to come by for Di María, and as such, Manchester United decided to swoop in and sign him for a Premier League record £59.7 million. However, after a promising start that would see him score two goals and two assists in his first four matches and pick up the team’s Player of the Month award for September, he was unable to build on his momentum and eventually found himself surplus to requirements under Louis van Gaal.


After just one year in England, Di María packed his bags for France and made the move to Paris Saint-Germain for £44 million. He didn’t take long to make an impact at the Parc de Princes, setting a Ligue 1 record by registering 18 assists in 2015/16. Despite being overshadowed by bigger names like Zlatan Ibrahimović, Edinson Cavani, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, Di María would emerge as a PSG legend, winning a total of 19 trophies (including five league titles) and playing a vital role in their trip to the 2020 UEFA Champions League Final, where they would lose to Bayern Munich.


Whilst racking up plenty of silverware at the club level, trophies didn’t quite follow him at the international stage. In 2015, he was substituted within the first half-hour of the Copa América Final against Chile, with the hosts prevailing on penalties. One year later, Di María kicked off the Copa América Centenario by scoring the opener and assisting Banega’s goal in a 2-1 win vs. Chile, before assisting Nicolás Otamendi’s opener in their second match, a 5-0 win vs. Panama.


Di María was unable to finish the match, however, and missed the rest of the tournament due to injury. Once again, Argentina would reach the final, only to lose to Chile on penalties. His poor luck continued, with Argentina falling to eventual champions France in the Round of 16 of the 2018 World Cup before losing to eventual champions Brazil in the semifinals of the 2019 Copa América, but Argentina would nevertheless take third place after beating Chile 2-1.


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Things would turn around in 2021, with Argentina drawing 1-1 to Chile in the opener before edging Uruguay and Paraguay 1-0, demolishing Bolivia 4-1, thrashing Ecuador 3-0, and narrowly squeaking past Colombia on penalties to reach the final. Di María had come off the bench in all but one of their matches — their win against Paraguay which saw him set up Papu Gómez’s opener in the 10th minute — but he was nevertheless entrusted with the starting spot in the final.


He would reward Lionel Scaloni’s trust in the 22nd minute, timing his run to perfection and taking a touch to control Rodrigo De Paul’s through ball on the edge of the box before beating Ederson with his trademark chipped shot. The Albiceleste would hold on and edge Brazil on home soil, securing a 1-0 victory and putting an end to a 28-year trophy drought. 13 years after scoring the winning goal vs. Nigeria in the Olympics Final to secure gold, Di María had once again led his nation to the promised land.


The following summer would see El Fideo depart Paris Saint-Germain on the back of a stellar chapter that featured 93 goals and 119 assists in 295 appearances, joining Juventus on a free transfer. Whilst he wasn’t quite able to make a sizable impact under Max Allegri, he did manage to impress with his agility, technical ability, creativity and dribbling prowess, becoming one of the first names on the Bianconeri’s team sheet.


Four months after making the move to Juve, Di María packed his bags for Qatar and suited up for the FIFA World Cup. After losing the first match to Saudi Arabia, Argentina were in desperate need of a victory and they managed to eke one out against Mexico, with Di María assisting Messi’s opener in a 2-0 victory vs. El Tri before starting in their 2-0 win against Poland.



However, it looked like Di María’s dismal luck with injuries would strike once again, with the veteran winger missing out on both of their matches against Australia and Croatia and playing just the final eight minutes of their quarterfinal match against the Netherlands. Instead, Scaloni called an audible and started him on the left flank, as opposed to his normal position on the right, a decision that he would not come to regret.


Di María would maneuver his way into the edge of the box before being tripped up by Ousmane Dembélé, with Lionel Messi scoring the resulting penalty. 13 minutes later, he finished off a dazzling counter-attacking move and slid the ball past Hugo Lloris for the second.


He was withdrawn after an hour and Mbappé proceeded to score a late brace to force extra time, where both Messi and Mbappé would convert for their respective nations, but the Albiceleste would end up prevailing on penalties to win their first World Cup since 1986.


After one season in Turin, Di María headed back to Benfica on a free transfer. He joined Benfica as a precocious teenager from Rosario, and he returned a champion of Spain, France, Europe, South America, and above all, the world. Di María revealed, “They called me from Saudi Arabia, I had a lot of calls. The numbers they offer are incredible… but I chose with my heart, I wanted to come to Benfica.”


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His second debut for the club would see him score the opener vs. Porto in the Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira, with the Argentine racking up an impressive five goal contributions in his first four league matches as well as the winning goal in their 1-0 victory against Porto in September.


Time and time again, Di María continues to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments, whether it be scoring in La Finalissima to guide Argentina to a 3-0 victory against Euro champions Italy at Wembley, or finding the back of the net in a Clássico. Only Cristiano Ronaldo (42) and Lionel Messi (40) have registered more assists in the Champions League than Di María (39), who has racked up 179 goals and 267 assists across 768 club matches.


When it looked like Benfica’s European campaign was coming to an end, Di María completed four dribbles, created four chances, registered six shots, opened the scoring via an Olimpico and assisted the second goal as Benfica edged Red Bull Salzburg 3-1 in the final matchday to finish third and qualify for the UEFA Europa League.


The Eagles would lose to Marseille on penalties in the Europa League quarterfinals, whilst they exited the Taça de Portugal and Taça da Liga at the semifinals and finished second in the league, coming 10 points behind Sporting. It looks set to be a rebuilding season for Benfica, who will lose veteran playmaker Rafa Silva on a free transfer and could lose another in Di María, with the Argentine entering the final weeks of his contract.



With Di María seemingly unlikely to renew his deal in Lisbon, it seems that his glorious career in European football could be coming to an end. A reunion with Messi at Inter Miami is gathering speculation, whilst a move back to Rosario seems to be a pipe dream. Last week, a service station at Rosario was shot at, with the gun men leaving a note that stated, “We are waiting for you, Di María.”


This comes just two months after an incident that saw perpetrators leave a nylon package at Di María’s Rosario home, which contained a letter stating, “Tell your son Ángel not to return to Rosario, because otherwise we will ruin everything by killing a family member. Not even [Santa Fé governor Maximiliano] Pullaro will save you. We don’t throw pieces of paper, we throw lead and leave you dead.”


It remains to be seen where the 36-year-old will be playing next season, but one thing is for sure: Ángel Di María’s epic career with the Albiceleste is coming to an end. Having registered 30 goals and 30 assists in 138 appearances for Argentina, he will retire from international duty after this summer’s Copa América in the United States. Can he ride off into the sunset in a blaze of glory and lead Argentina to one last trophy?


By: Victor Akinola / @Only1Victor10

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Carlos Costa / AFP