Fernando Gago’s breakdown during Argentina’s latest qualifying phase was sadly all too typical of a promising career blighted by injury
“I don’t care! Let me play!” screamed Fernando Gago.
The pain and frustration of years of injuries etched on the midfielder’s face as he lay on the side of the Bombonera pitch frantically wrapping tape around his own knee.
In the context of Argentina’s goalless draw with Peru, a result that left La Albiceleste on the brink of not qualifying for the World Cup, it was easy for Gago’s injury to get lost amid the panic but for the one-time heir to Fernando Redondo’s crown it was another cruel twist in a career that has seen more than enough of the surgeon’s knife.
Gago last played for Argentina over two years ago in a friendly against Mexico, five days before rupturing his Achilles tendon in a superclásico and since then the 31-year-old has spent the majority of time on the treatment table. There was something triumphant about his return to the national team in the home of his beloved Boca in front of his adoring supporters that made his six-minute appearance all the more heartbreaking.
But there is something sadly fitting that Gago’s Argentina career ends in such a way.
The classy defensive midfielder will certainly be able to look back on successes if and when the time comes to hang up his boots but there is no doubting that Gago never reached the heights that so many expected of him.
As a teenager, whose passing ability and maturity far belied his years, Gago broke into the Boca Juniors first team towards the end of 2004 and was a key part of a side that won the following two Primera titles. Simultaneously he shone as the fulcrum of an Argentina midfield that lifted the under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands and the sky was the limit.
Understandably Boca would have liked to hold on to their young maestro for a little longer ahead of a Copa Libertadores campaign but Real Madrid had seen enough. Having swooned over the talents of Fernando Redondo at the Bernabeu some years earlier, Los Blancos were infatuated with the player tipped to replicate his genius.
Despite moving to Spain for a huge fee in excess of €20 million, European football never saw the best of Gago. There were some good performances, particularly in his second season at Madrid as they lifted the Liga title, but between dips in form, fierce competition and persistent injuries, Gago never fulfilled his promise.
A loan to Roma that wasn’t made permanent made way for a switch to Valencia but when Gago returned to Argentina with Vélez, the writing was on the wall. Even this loan move was blighted with injury and it was only with La Albiceleste that the midfielder was still really able to prove his worth.
A familiarity that stretched back to the under-20s, Gago provided a balance to Argentina’s midfield and an ability to help get the most from Lionel Messi, which Alejandro Sabella valued above club form. It was this that kept the midfielder in the plans and presumably led Jorge Sampaoli to call upon Gago for the most recent World Cup qualifiers.
However, Sampaoli will also have seen that when fit, Gago has still proven to be a class above almost all other midfielders in Argentina’s top flight and has been instrumental in Boca Juniors success since rejoining in 2013.
This, despite having to come back from two potentially career threatening Achilles breaks.
The first, just minutes into a superclásico at the Monumental, much like his recent knee troubles against Peru, saw Gago crumple to the turf under no contact, but after fighting his way back from that, seven months later it happened again.
Once more against rivals River Plate, this time in La Bombonera, Gago ruptured the same Achilles but after going through the same rehabilitation, Boca’s captain returned. Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side deservedly lifted the title last season and have made a perfect start to their defence which makes another serious injury so galling.
While it surely ends any international aspirations, there are still doubts over whether the 31-year-old can stage another comeback. Boca will wait and hope that it isn’t the end but having gone from a potential World Cup place in 2018, Gago’s career hangs in the balance. Another case of what might have been.