Since taking over the Argentine national team Jorge Sampaoli has taken pains to see his potential stars in action. That commitment has made him a regular visitor at Racing Club’s El Cilindro, where he has seen up close the undeniable talent of young striker Lautaro Martínez in 2018. The 20-year-old’s goals have seen him push his way into contention for a World Cup spot; but on Sunday evening it was a goalkeeper that caught all eyes at the Cilindro.
Lautaro and the rest of Racing’s goal-happy line-up were frustrated by a scintillating Franco Armani, the shotstopper forwhom River Plate splashed out a massive US$3.8 million to bring him back from almost eight years of happy exile in Colombia. Just 12 months ago Armani was being touted as a serious option to travel to Russia with his adopted Colombia, but after playing a key role in River’s 2-0 victory he is now well and truly in Sampaoli’s plans.
Under the stewardship of former River player and ex-Rosario Central coach Eduardo Coudet, and with Lautaro leading the way, Racing have become one of the most potent attacking teams in the Superliga during 2018. Armani, however, was equal to the task, pulling off a string of brilliant stops to keep the hosts at bay in Avellaneda. The pick of the bunch was a fingertip effort to deny Matias Zaracho’s venomous volley, but one could also single out a point-blank stop to deny the same player after the break, or his intelligent narrowing of the angle to keep out Martínez as equally impressive.
Having hit the net in 11 consecutive games, Coudet’s Racing were finally foiled in a result that puts a dent in their hopes of qualifying for next year’s Copa Libertadores. Armani took all the plaudits, and with Sampaoli in the stands he made a big case for inclusion in the 23-man squad that will travel to the World Cup.
“I never want to see Armani again,” Coudet joked after the match, a feeling that is shared by no few opponents who have tried and failed to beat him.
Curiously enough, Armani and Sampaoli both call home the tiny Santa Fe town of Casilda. His career took him to Colombian giants Atlético Nacional by way of Ferro and Deportivo Merlo in the lower leagues, a brave move for a novice goalkeeper who at the time was just 24. His time in Medellín yielded no less than 13 major titles, most notably 2016’s Libertadores crown, and while he took some time to settle into life at River, sterling performances firstly against Boca to win the Supercopa and now at Racing have made him a firm favourite with the Monumental crowd.
“Receiving the call and being in the national team is obviously a dream, it would be the fruit of several years’ work,” Armani told reporters after the final whistle on Sunday. “It has been my dream since I was in Colombia and now here in Argentina, I might not have been too well known here but day after day I have to keep showing my stuff and playing well.”
Sampaoli knows the Armani family well, having given Franco’s brother Leandro his debut in football back in 1999 when the coach was at the reins of Aprendices Casildenses in their shared hometown. A meeting between player and coach is expected in the coming weeks to discuss his Argentina possibilities – if not, Colombia are ready to pounce.
According to the goalkeeper’s agent Nikos Petropulus, Colombia coach José Pekerman’s assistant was also present at the Cilindro to watch Armani in action.
“Franco has started the paperwork for Colombian citizenship, at that time to avoid taking up a foreign player spot [at Nacional],” he explained. “Franco would have no problem playing for Colombia, but he wants to play in Argentina.”
“He had two dreams: playing in the top division of his country and pulling on the gloves for Argentina. He will wait until the last minute for Sampaoli’s call.”
With Sergio Romero set to play his third World Cup as No. 1 and the likes of Willy Caballero, Agustín Marchesín, Nahuel Guzmán and Gerónimo Rulli also in contention, Sampaoli has a neat dilemma on his hands. Armani’s appearance has given him yet another option to fill the space between the posts in Russia, and if he chooses against the River star he might yet be there as an adoptive Cafetero.