One day earlier this season, Inter Miami CF head coach Phil Neville was searching for ways to galvanize and challenge the locker room. He told everyone to go around and say how many titles they’ve won in their careers.
Miami have a young team. He knew, realistically, a handful of veterans might have one or two trophies.
The question came around to star forward Gonzalo Higuain and – matter-of-factly and a bit muted, as if he felt bad for his success relative to the group – the Argentine exhaled with diecisiete (17).
“The whole room stood up and gave him a standing ovation,” Neville told the media. “He said it casually, almost embarrassingly with his great humility. It was a powerful moment.”
Higuain has had a long, distinguished and successful career. Very soon, that glittering career will end, as Higuain announced Monday he’ll be retiring at the end of the 2022 MLS season.
It’s easy to forget or overlook past accomplishments. For any shortcomings or frustrations over the years, Higuain’s career is undoubtedly a success. He scored more than 300 goals and logged over 100 assists in total, plus made 75 appearances for the Argentine national team – including at three World Cups and in the 2014 World Cup final. He won league titles in Spain and Italy as headlined by storied sides Real Madrid and Juventus, with a trophy case stuffed to the brim.
“The day to say goodbye to football is here, a profession that gave me so much, for which I feel privileged to have lived, with its good and not so good moments,” Higuain said in Spanish.
Through tears and hugs with family and teammates, Higuain reflected on those years, mental health and more. Now 34, nearly two decades after it all began, his last games are around the corner.
“To me, the most important thing is not the titles, the goals or the overall career,” Higuain said. “I take with me the people I’ve gotten to know, the values that I know and I try to go beyond what I achieved in my career. I want to be remembered as a human more than what I’ve been as a player.”
From River Plate to Real Madrid
Higuain broke through at famed Argentine academy River Plate, where he was quickly recognized as a can’t-miss star-in-the-making.
At 17 years old, he made his River Plate debut and never looked back.
“Those are memories I will never forget,” Higuain said. “The classic River-Boca also comes to mind at Monumental. Also against Corinthians in Brazil for the Copa Libertadores.
“In both games, I was able to score two goals and we won. I was very young playing in such important games, just 17, 18 years old. Thousands of emotions ran through my head. These were very emotional moments for me.”
Higuain would have 15 goals in 41 appearances as a teenager for River Plate, drawing attention from the world’s biggest clubs. He ended up joining Real Madrid during the 2006-07 season, playing alongside legends Iker Casillas, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Sergio Ramos, Raul, Fabio Cannavaro and, for half a season, David Beckham, who’s now a co-owner of Inter Miami.
“My dad would always say: Respect, admire, but never fear,” Higuain said. “Don’t feel less or more than others. When I arrived at Madrid, I knew there were great stars there. I had to respect them and admire them, but I could not have fear because then I would be left aside.”
Higuain won three LaLiga titles and one Copa del Ray trophy with Madrid.
He then went to Italy, where his goal-scoring record lives on. He remains the joint-leader for most goals ever in a Serie A season (36, with Napoli) and then was signed by Juventus. He had 125 goals in 224 Serie A appearances between Napoli and Juventus, plus a loan stint at AC Milan.
“He’s, without doubt, one of the best finishers I’ve ever seen, worked with or played with,” Neville said. “He’s incredible. He has that street football mentality of wanting to train every day. He never wants a day off. Very quickly I realized he had something that you can’t coach or teach.”
Higuain’s career wasn’t always positive – there were down moments, like anyone else. His legacy with national team fans is complicated, as he was part of three teams that lost in finals, including the World Cup and two Copa Americas. In the World Cup final against Germany, Higuain missed a crucial chance and has received abuse for it ever since.
“That’s never going to change,” Higuain said of the criticism. “The one thing I ask for is that people are conscious before making a comment or publishing something because they don’t know the irreparable damage they create on another person.”
“Many people can’t defend themselves and speak up,” he continued. “I’ve suffered it. It hurt but thankfully I have my family behind me – my wife and my daughter, who have pushed me forward. But there are people who don’t move forward. Five seconds in front of a computer can ruin someone’s life. It won’t change because the anonymous brave ones will always exist.”
After retiring from the national team and with his role at Juventus getting smaller, Higuain was ready for a new challenge. He joined Inter Miami in September 2020, a chance to play in MLS and with his brother Federico Higuain, who was finishing up his own career after starring for the Columbus Crew from 2012-19. Pipa and El Pipita are only three years apart, reunited as teammates when their mother passed away in April 2021.
“I have to thank Inter Miami a lot for believing in me, for hiring me, because I found a country, a city and special people here,” Higuain said. “Thanks to this club, we fulfilled the dream of my family and my mother. She was going through a very, very delicate situation and before leaving us, she could see us [my brother and I] play together again, just like when we were little.”
Higuain has been oft-maligned in MLS as Miami have struggled to live up to expectations, and he’s been demonstrably angry on the field and even got benched at the beginning of this year.
The last few months have changed. Higuain is ending his career on a high note.
2022: “One of the best moments in my career”
Over the last 15 games, Higuain has 12 goals and two assists. During that time, Miami have shot up the Eastern Conference table and unpredictably into the thick of the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs race.
“When you’re a big player with the kind of experience and quality that he’s got, I think you have the ability to carry the team on your back,” Neville said. “He did that six or seven weeks ago.”
Along the way, he rediscovered his love for the game in south Florida after spending nearly 15 years in Europe’s top leagues.
“It presented a different phase in my career, but I can admit that it has been one of the best moments in my career and that’s something this club gave me,” Higuain said. “My teammates and the coaching staff, the physios, the people that work here – they reignited my desire to play the game.
“This year has been one of the ones I’ve enjoyed most. I never thought MLS would give me that. My intention was to come to enjoy and compete, but I never thought it would turn into one of my best moments of my career. This year has been just that, thanks to everyone who has helped me.”
Higuain played in countless huge games for La Albiceleste and in Europe with Madrid, Napoli, Juventus and Chelsea. He won six league titles and set records, but this season will stack up favorably in his memory.
There are still a couple more games left at least. Thanks to Higuain, Miami are in the playoff race, with two more regular-season games left. As long as they keep winning, Higuain will play a few more times, possibly even toward MLS Cup on Nov. 5.
“There were a lot of questions about him and the team,” Neville said. “We spoke about legacy, how he wants to be remembered, all the things that are important. You have two choices: Waive the white flag and give up or you show who you are. What he’s shown on and off the field, he’s proven he’s world-class, a great person and a winner.”