Making one's debut in the pressure-filled cauldron that is Argentine football is always a daunting prospect. Doing so while still being to all intents and purposes a child, even more so. Yet for Sergio Agüero, his introduction to the Primera División proved the first step on a glittering career packed to the brim with trophies and goals – and which ended somewhat prematurely this week with his announcement that he would not return to the field following the discovery of a heart condition while playing for Barcelona at the start of November.
Agüero was aged just 15 years and 35 days when then-Independiente coach Óscar Ruggeri called on the baby-faced striker off the bench to face San Lorenzo in July 2003. In doing so he surpassed future father-in-law Diego Maradona as the youngest player ever to feature in the Argentine top tier, a heady milestone indeed. By the following year ‘El Kun’ was already a regular part of the Rojo set-up, while in 2005-2006 he had set himself apart as the nation's hottest football prospect, securing a memorable 4-0 clásico victory over Racing Club with a virtuoso performance and goal and shortly afterwards a hugely lucrative move to Atlético Madrid, all of which arrived before he had even managed to blow the candles out on his 18th birthday cake.
The story from there is familiar to almost everybody. Five stellar seasons in the Spanish capital caught the eye of newly minted Manchester City, desperate to climb out of the shadow that rivals United had cast long over the club for the best part of two decades. Agüero did more than anyone to ensure that once-distant dream would become reality. He delivered Premier League glory in his first season in dramatic fashion, netting a last-day, last-minute winner over Queen's Park Rangers to seal City's first crown since 1968. Overall his 10 seasons in England yielded almost 400 appearances, 260 goals and 15 major trophies, including five Premier League wins. In the regular debate over the division's best-ever foreign star El Kun is now a fixture, and it would be no exaggeration whatsoever to mark him out as one of, if not the best forward ever to grace its fields.
Unsurprisingly, Atlético and City featured highly in the dedications Agüero handed out as he revealed the gut-wrenching decision to hang up his boots. "I want to thank Atletico Madrid, who took a chance on me when I was 18, and Manchester City – everyone knows who I feel about City and how well they treated me there,” the retiring star told reporters in Wednesday's press conference. His legacy at the latter is enshrined for eternity, while in the past 30 years perhaps only his great friend Lionel Messi and the legendary Gabriel Batistuta have enjoyed such a sterling reputation among all of his compatriots in European football.
Defining what Agüero leaves behind with the national team is perhaps a rather more complex matter. The forward, along with Messi was the brightest gem of Argentina's famed 2005 and 2007 classes, a generation bred for success and glory with back-to-back Junior World Cups. That those expected triumphs did not pass over to the senior ranks but instead ended in three consecutive final defeats is a nagging failure based on many factors, including chronic instability at the Argentine Football Association (AFA) and coaching set-up and simply rotten luck at key moments, but it also points towards a weakness in the team in decisive moments to which Agüero too was susceptible.
Ultimately, despite more than 40 goals in international colours, the Albiceleste never quite saw the same Kun as his club employers. Incredibly, and despite travelling to three consecutive World Cup finals, the forward completed the full 90 minutes just once in the competition; while in Brazil 2014, arguably at the height of his powers as a player, injury and a lack of fitness combined to keep a man who could well have fired Alejandro Sabella's team to the title well on the margins. Like Gonzalo Higuaín, Agüero has been rather unfairly remembered for the opportunities missed rather than taken in international colours, and when he finally managed to get his hands on a senior trophy at this year's Copa América it was as Lautaro Martínez's deputy; although to a man this Argentina side has nothing but praise for the psychological boost that the veteran, always smiling and ready to joke around with his colleagues, brought to the dressing room.
“You will miss us when we're gone,” Agüero once told Olé in a famous interview, and while that statement was not welcomed by all at a time when Argentina's trophy drought threatened never to end, it was ultimately accurate. With his retirement eight of the 14 players that represented the Albiceleste against Germany in the 2014 final are no longer active in the game, and that number will only rise in the coming years until that generation is fully subsumed into the ranks of coaches and pundits passing judgement on the latest crop of talent. For Independiente, Atlético, City and Argentina alike, meanwhile, the memory will endure of the kid from Bernal who reached the very top, who as well as being one of modern football's greatest goalscorers was also one of its warmest, most sincere and genuine personalities.