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Person of the week

The Red Devils’ Angel

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Why Manchester United has spent £59.7 million on acquiring El Fideo, ‘the noodle’, as this lean footballer is often called
During their World Cup campaign, Argentina had what many termed ‘the fantastic four’. Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuaín ahead, Lionel Messi just a touch behind, and Angel Di Maria, who in sudden bursts, would emerge from the deep. But save for Messi, during the initial part of the tournament, they looked far from fantastic. Both Higuain and Aguero looked off colour, with the latter perhaps even unfit. And Di Maria alternated between unlucky and clumsy.

The situation did not look very different in their match against a plucky Switzerland side. Messi was closely guarded throughout the match, sometimes with as many as four players. The first 90 minutes was tight, without any goals, just like the Swiss would have wanted. For Argentina to win, someone else apart from Messi would have to stand up. Di Maria was having a miserable game. He had given the ball away 51 times and recorded a pass completion rate of only 63 per cent. The match went into extra time. Just two minutes away from a penalty shoot-out, Messi, in a fantastic display of skill and speed, snaked past defender after defender. By the time he neared the goalie, there were too many defenders to attempt a goal. So he sent the ball, gently and sublimely to his right. And from nowhere Di Maria emerged, pointed ears, a face like Kafka, snaking towards the post, sprinting into space—a footballer as beautiful as his name. To Messi’s gentle touch, Angel Di Maria sent in a scorching left to the bottom left corner of the post. The next shot was Di Maria’s face, his fingers formed into a heart. You could understand then what the big fuss was about this 26-year-old. In the quarter-final match against Belgium, he set up the winning goal. But he also tore a thigh muscle, which made him miss the rest of the tournament. The Germans didn’t have to cope with his pace in the finals.

Nicknamed El Fideo, or ‘the noodle’, for his long and thin physique, he was once sold by one club to another for 35 footballs. The Argentine club Rosario Central, when it first spotted him as a child playing for a local side, had to provide those balls as a transfer fee. Today, Di Maria’s is the most expensive English transfer of all time. He has signed a five-year deal with Manchester United for a staggering transfer fee of £59.7 million. The last time someone shelled out such big bucks was when Chelsea paid £50 million to acquire Fernando Torres from Liverpool. Born to a coal seller in the city of Rosario, Di Maria is part of Manchester United new coach Louis Van Gaal’s plans to turn around the club’s fortunes. The English club has had a terrible season last year, failing to defend their Premier League title and to qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Van Gaal would be looking at Di Maria’s speed, his penetrating passes and knack for creating goal opportunities.

Di Maria has been excellent at Real Madrid. Last season, he provided a total 22 assists, more than anyone else in Spain. He leaves Real with 36 goals and 72 assists in 190 games. But his departure from Real was being predicted about a year ago, when the club spent a fortune to acquire Gareth Bale. James Rodriguez’s acquisition created further buzz. A few weeks ago, when Atlético Madrid’s manager Diego Simeone was analysing his side’s 1-1 game against Real, he told reporters that the game’s turning point came when Real brought on their best player, Di Maria. Real’s manager Carlo Ancelotti’s reply was, “I think he has forgotten about the Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and about Gareth Bale, who scored in the final in Lisbon (against Atlético).” It seemed certain then that plans were afoot. Di Maria was leaving soon.