BY DAVE MARTINEZ
To understand the Columbus Crew’s Federico Higuain, you have to know where he is coming from.
The dynamic forward, and the Crew's newest Designated Player, was born and raised in the bustling metropolis of Buenos Aires, and he comes from a culture where soccer is king. In fact, it permeates nearly all parts of the Argentine lifestyle – from it’s politics to the country’s culture. The government is so vested in the sport, they provide it as an entitlement program to the masses by broadcasting games in a plan simply called “Futbol Para Todo” – or “Soccer for All.” Supporters groups have input into the actual direction of the team with the majority of their clubs. Professional footballers live in gated homes as a precaution against the fiercely passionate and obsessed masses that have been known to stalk the occasional player and offer words of encouragement – or the type of venom that wouldn’t be fit to print.
Overall, it is the one area of Argentine life where all classes meet under one powerful common interest – their passion for the game.
You can imagine, then, the sheer culture shock Higuain has experienced since uprooting his family to the United States and finding himself in Columbus, Ohio, Major League Soccer’s second smallest market.
“I was just talking about this with one of my American teammates – in some very basic English,” Higuain said with a chuckle. “He asked me if I liked the town, and really, I like it a lot. I feel very comfortable, as much myself as well as my family. In comparison, Buenos Aires is a huge city with a lot of life, lot’s of movement. Here, it is a bit slower with more down time, more tranquility. Honestly, I feel very comfortable here along with my family. We are enjoying it.”
Higuain isn’t the first noteworthy Argentine name to call Columbus home. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a legend in Argentina’s fabled Boca Jrs. club, fell in love with the simplicities of life in Columbus and the competitive nature of Major League Soccer. Upon making his move, Higuain reached out to “Guille” to get the lay of the land prior to his arrival.
“Basically, what he told me was mostly about what I would find in Columbus and the League; that the city was tranquil, beautiful, open with large grass fields – which is exactly what I found. In respect to soccer, (he told me) where teams generally finish, where you can see great stadiums, fans. Everything he has said is what I have found. Just having the possibility to talk to someone as important as he is in my country, to have told me all this, and to find everything the way he said it, really, it was very positive for me.”
However, some things you simply have to live to believe. Coming from the highly-guarded life of a footballer in his native land, Schelotto’s description of life in Ohio simply sounded too good to be true.
“Some things grab my attention as a foreigner,” he continued. “The way people live here, I consider it how it should be to live around the world and the way it should be normally; living in a house that isn’t gated, without having to put the lock on the door, feeling secure in a home with all the doors wide open without fear of being robbed or some other terrible thing happening. I see how people live here, how they comport themselves, leaving cars with keys in the engine. Guillermo told me about these situations, and I am now here, I am living it and I see it and really, it’s really nice, especially when you have a family and children.”
The lifestyle preference isn’t a slight to the way things are done in Argentina, mind you. In fact, Higuain finds it hard to draw any damning comparisons either culturally or professionally between the two countries. Simply put, whether right or not, "futbol" carries a different meaning in South America.
“I don’t know how to tell you really,” he said. “In South America, you understand things differently, you live things differently, and it’s just different. I am not telling you that it’s right or wrong, just different. Now if you ask me, it seems much more coherent that the relations between fans and players be more like it is here. But well, that is my taste, what can I tell you. Other people, maybe not.
“Soccer in Argentina is the number one sport of the country, the sport that practically moves the country, historically speaking. They allow a lot of things to go on. In a sense, I think it’s a mistake. For all the passions that move people, they should try to prohibit some of the things that happen, but these are issues that are years in the making, and hopefully will get better. Today, it’s what happens, but hopefully will change.
“Comparing is difficult,” he continued. “I can only tell you the way I see soccer. It has become more physical with more importance put on the physical aspects of a player and not as much of the technique of the players. It’s the wave of preference that has generated over the last few years and few teams count on those kinds of quality players, physically potent players, players that have superior qualities above others.
“I am very happy about being in this country and playing in this league. It’s a place that will provide you great facilities, a great place to work, the tranquility of attending a field and knowing everything goes the way it should, which is all about soccer and nothing more. There are a ton of commodities to help a player that are also important. That is what I feel, and what makes me happy. Maybe some players like other things, other types of leagues, but I can only tell you how I feel and I feel very comfortable in the United States and playing in MLS.
“The organization of the league, the security to attend events, the game times, the dressing rooms, the stadiums, even the kits … I think everything is very well done. The only thing a player is left to do is perform.”
Cultural adjustments aside, Higuain has played a large role in the Crew’s resurgence from playoff pretender to contender. Eyes widened when Coach Robert Warzycha benched the red-hot Argentine striker for their encounter against the Red Bulls. It turns out a heel injury was the culprit and the rest was a precaution to keep Higuain fresh for the stretch run.
“I’ve had a really strong pain in the heel of my right foot. (Last Friday), the coaches and the medical staff recommended an infiltration, injecting a medicine where the pain was,” he said. “In theory, five or six days, the inflammation should go away along with the pain. The idea was to play a couple of minutes (against New York) if the coach thought it was necessary, knowing that Wednesday we have another game coming and no player can miss more than a game because we are all important and necessary for the team.
“Unfortunately, I had to sit out with a small injury but what I felt was a little bit of pain that was manageable.”
The Crew’s star striker expects to be fully healthy for their Wednesday home tilt against Chivas USA.
“We set a goal and we are working towards that. I hope we can accomplish (making the playoffs). I think we have the potential to do so but we have to keep on working. Thankfully Wednesday we have a game and a chance to recover.”