Leo Messi looked worried, while Ezequiel Lavezzi couldn’t look at all.
Yet, as most of the Argentina squad stood around anxiously before the penalty shoot-out with the Netherlands, two of them were unwilling to wait.
Javier Mascherano grabbed goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and went right in close. “Tonight, you make yourself a hero,” the midfielder declared. Romero certainly did that. He seized the moment by getting his hands to two penalties, and sending Argentina to the final.
It was not just, however, a supreme display of goalkeeping. It was also a remarkable personal reversal and a somewhat reassuring story.
As the Argentina squad and entourage ran towards Romero in celebration, the goalkeeper felt it wasn’t just because of his saves. It was also because this World Cup may have gone someway to saving his career.
On loan at Monaco last season from Sampdoria, the 27-year-old only made three appearances. He was a discarded and thereby disconsolate figure. The lack of football raised serious debate in Argentina over whether Romero should remain in the starting line-up, but Alejandro Sabella retained faith in the goalkeeper.
Romero kept his place in the team, and it paid off by keeping the country on course for a first World Cup in 28 years.
At the very least, it puts Argentina in their first final for 24 years, and comparisons were immediately drawn with Sergio Goycochea, who saved a series of penalties on the way to the 1990 showpiece. By the time Romero emerged into the Arena Corinthians mixed zone on Wednesday night, he was carrying the ball he had twice got his hand to so decisively in the shoot-out.
“Yes, the lads presented it to me as a memento from the match,” Romero said. “It’s a great memory.”
It was also reward for Sabella.
“Yes, of course,” Romero gushed. “He is a manager who has helped me a lot, they are a staff who has helped me a lot, a squad who have helped me a lot. I work for that, to give something back. I feel I grew, in what has been a difficult time for me. All the staff, all the players, they all backed me. So, when the game finished, they all came over to embrace me because it was a difficult year.”
And yet, was this the greatest moment of his career so far?
“Absolutely, especially after a tough year for me, after not playing so much. The truth is I leave tonight delighted. All my team-mates are delighted. That’s the important thing.”
Romero also made the important decisions on the night. He went the right way for the penalties of both Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder.
The goalkeeper admitted he had prepared, but the stops didn’t completely come from studying the takers.
“I knew a little bit about how they take them but the penalties always change. The reality is there are very few players who always go the same place. You could see it with [Arjen] Robben. Against Costa Rica, he went one side. Tonight, he went the other.
“Also, intuition helps you a lot. It helped me. I felt one would go to the left and it did.”
Romero’s display took on an extra dimension because of the fact it was Louis van Gaal who first brought him to Europe with AZ Alkmaar. Despite that twist of fate and the Netherlands’ elimination after so much discussion about their earlier shoot-out against Costa Rica, the Dutch coach was still able to joke about it.
“I taught Romero how to stop penalties, so that hurts!”
Romero is at least smiling again, but determined to rectify another element from his career.
He was in goals the last time Argentina played Germany in a World Cup, when they lost 4-0 in the 2010 quarter-final.
“We think of this World Cup now. That was a hard blow... but four years have passed and we hope to do things better than we did that day. We’ve grown a lot.”
Romero is the proof of that.
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