Everyone knows that hard work, discipline and commitment are paramount in order to succeed at the highest level in football, but there are some players who are seemingly destined to take centre stage in the big moments. It doesn't get much bigger than the FIFA World Cup™, where Maxi Rodriguez has come up with the goods in crunch situations on more than one occasion.
This past Wednesday, fate once again put the Rosario-born schemer on the spot, as he stepped up to convert the penalty that put his country through to the Final in Brazil. Eight years earlier, Rodriguez's extra-time wonder strike against Mexico had earned Argentina a place in the quarter-finals at his first World Cup, Germany 2006, although his dreams of going further would subsequently be dashed by the hosts in the last eight.
The Germans also dumped La Albiceleste out at the same stage four years ago, this time dishing out a real thrashing. As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that when FIFA asked him whether he would be looking to get his own payback on Die Nationalmannschaft in the big showpiece at the Maracana on 13 July, the Newell's Old Boys ace did not mince his words.
"You bet. Since they knocked us out on the last two occasions, I can't deny that I'm out for payback. The first time was more painful because it was on penalties. In South Africa it was different, because we hardly got into the game. But now it's a final, the most important match we're going to play. Of course I want revenge."
Waiting in the wings:
Maxi has already made amends once at this summer's tournament. Having started just once in the six qualifiers he featured in on the road to Brazil, the veteran was a surprise pick by Alejandro Sabella for Argentina's opener against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
However, with the team struggling, he was unable to make an impact and, after being hauled off at half-time, the winger-cum-attacking midfielder had to wait until the semi-final against the Netherlands for another opportunity.
"I knew that I'd be called upon again at some point and that I might make an important contribution," notes the man who sealed his country's shoot-out victory. "But what's important is what's at stake on Sunday. It's what we had our sights set on before we left Buenos Aires and now we have it within our grasp. Now we all have to make one final effort," adds the former Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and Espanyol man.
As one of the squad's elder statesmen – like Lionel Messi, he has played in 11 World Cup fixtures, a figure surpassed in the current group only by Javier Mascherano's 12 – Rodriguez has the authority to discuss how the side are shaping up going into the Final. "We've got better as the tournament has worn on, despite suffering injuries to two key players in Kun [Sergio Aguero] and El Fideo [Angel di Maria]", he notes.
As the 33-year-old explains, "That's why a lot of the attacking onus has fallen on Leo, but we can't burden him with all that responsibility. We know he's a game changer, but we have to support him. The upside is that the group is well drilled: everyone knows their role. We're ready for the challenge that's waiting for us on Sunday."
As for Germany, Rodriguez is not daunted by having to take on an outfit that demolished Brazil 7-1. "They're a compact unit because the spine of the team is made up of players who have known each other for a long time. But that scoreline didn't scare me: it's the sort of result that happens once every 100 matches. We have to be mindful of their threat, sure, but without losing sight of our game and how we can get at them."
After so many false dawns, Maxi is clearly aware of the magnitude of the opportunity he and his team-mates have in their hands. "There is nothing more important to us than making history in this shirt," he asserts by way of a parting message. "We've all dreamed of being world champions and now we are within striking distance of doing it. We're going to fight to make it happen."
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