When Alexis Mac Allister returned to his day job, he was greeted with a standing ovation, an Argentinian flag and a line of strategically placed cannons that showered him with sparkles of blue, white and gold. Even his Premier League team, Brighton, took issue with being tasked with lifting a replica World Cup trophy.
Few of McAllister’s teammates in the Argentine side that won the world championship three months ago experienced such a warm welcome when they returned to their clubs, but most had some kind of celebration, a sincere recognition of their achievement.
Defender Lisandro Martinez has been lauded at Manchester United. Reserve goalkeeper Franco Armani has received at least one commemorative jersey from his opponents. Exequiel Palacios midfielder has spent part of his first day at Bayer Leverkusen signing autographs for his coworkers.
Marcos Acuña, Alejandro Gomez and Gonzalo Montiel – the scorer of the penalty kick that brought his country the third World Cup – were invited to participate in the opening match before the first home match of their club Sevilla. Acuña and Montiel appeared with gold medals around their necks. Gomez, who was wearing a black trench coat, clasped his fists.
Others have chosen a more low-key approach. Lionel Messi was awarded a guard of honor in his first training session with Paris Saint-Germain; It is possible that the club decided that the French public would not be in the mood to roast Argentina’s success at their expense.
Thiago Almada, who at 21 is the youngest official member of the Argentina squad, has found something similar awaiting him at Atlanta United. We gave it tunel“I addressed him in front of the team,” said Atlanta coach Gonzalo Pineda. “It’s a huge achievement for him, of course, but we want to keep him grounded as well.”
How to do this is the dilemma facing not only the 19 clubs represented in Argentina’s victorious squad, but the 26 players themselves. (That figure rises to 27 if Federico Gomez Gerth, the Argentine club Tigre goalkeeper who was brought to Qatar to help with training, is included; the 19-year-old collected his own medal last week.)
Winning the World Cup, after all, would likely mark the pinnacle of both of their careers, an achievement midfielder Rodrigo de Paul has described as “the key to immortality”. They know it’s a victory they may not be able to match, and one they certainly won’t be allowed to forget: “People keep telling me I’ve achieved the most in football,” noted Emiliano Martínez, the goalkeeper.
Of course, the mood of Argentina remains festive. And on Thursday, the team will take to the field for the first time since winning the World Cup in Qatar, wearing jerseys proudly embroidered with three stars. At the end of the team’s friendly match against Panama in Buenos Aires, Messi will present the World Cup to the fans. It is such a tempting prospect that some 1.8 million people – four percent of the country’s population – have applied for tickets. They sold out within two hours. “There’s a craze that’s going on,” de Paul said, “and it’s going to live on for a long time.”
For players, this close attention posed a huge challenge. All World Cup winners have to get off the ground at some point of course, but most don’t have to do it very quickly.
The Qatar 2022 schedule, in the middle of the European season, means that the majority of Lionel Scaloni’s side have been called back into the relative world of football in the space of two weeks.
They’ve been marked, figuratively and literally, by what they’ve accomplished – Ángel Di Maria and Emiliano Martínez now have the World Cup tattooed on their legs; Montiel has three stars on his neck – but now they find themselves bent, almost immediately, to turn the page in the most glorious chapter of their career.
“It’s the hardest stage after you’ve achieved something so big,” Palacios told Infobae in January. “You have to quickly change your focus and keep training.”
In most cases, players seem to have made this transition relatively smoothly. Those who work with them say the gold medals were an inspiration, not a token of satisfaction. “He’s got a spring in his step,” McAllister’s Brighton teammate Ivan Ferguson said of the 24-year-old midfielder. “But he’s still on the ground. He’s still trying his best in training. He doesn’t think he’s better than us now.”
But that doesn’t mean waking up every morning like a World Cup winner has no effect. Xabi Alonso, world champion with Spain in 2010 and now Palacios coach in Leverkusen, noted that the 24-year-old has “more confidence in what he has achieved” in his career since returning from Qatar. “Being part of this historic victory, the way the team played and the fact that he was part of it helped him a lot,” said Alonso.
Pineda, meanwhile, found Almada—still only 21, entering his sophomore year in Major League Soccer—”more boisterous” in team meetings and on the field than he was before the World Cup. “He’s still the same professional kid, mature for his age, but if you share a dressing room with Messi before the World Cup final, you’ll learn a little bit about what to say and when to say it,” said Pineda. .
Atlanta saw no signs that Almada was ready to rest on his laurels, though the relatively muted celebration that greeted his return suggested the club was aware of the stakes. “His goal has always been to be a key player in a team in Europe,” said Pineda. “He wants to succeed there, to be a regular starter for the national team, to be at the top level. He’s young and has an uncanny talent, but he still has two more things to prove.”
Winning the World Cup before his 22nd birthday, as far as the club is concerned, changed none of that. Early this season, Atlanta provided each member of their team with an Individual Development Plan, a way to track each player’s growth, reminding them of where they are and where they want to be.
Almada has not been updated to reflect the fact that he lifted the World Cup, completed his final dream, and obtained the key to immortality. He, like his Argentine teammates, may never be able to match what they achieved in Qatar. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.
Tariq Banga contributed reporting from Brighton, England.
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