A new era for Argentina begins this week with interim coach Lionel Scaloni taking a barely recognisable squad to the United States for friendlies against Guatemala and Colombia. In the absence of Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Agüero, there is perhaps a shortage of star power in the group but it is now time for Mauro Icardi to step up.
Injury will prevent the Inter captain facing Guatemala on Friday but after being overlooked for so long by Argentina, Icardi could now take centre stage for La Albiceleste going forward towards next year’s Copa América and beyond.
“I did everything possible to be here and start this new cycle in the best way,” Icardi told TyC Sports.
“Last year I showed that I wanted to be on the team. Being in the national team is a pleasure, a pride and there are no words to describe it.
“I did everything possible for these ten days because the club [Inter] asked me to take care of myself, but I wanted to be here and start with the new guys.”
Icardi was in line to take his place at the tip of Argentina’s new look attack but injury may restrict the 25-year-old to a cameo against Colombia next Tuesday.
“When I come, something always happened to me. I have an old injury that bothers me every so often and last week we worked separately with the coaching staff. However, it was not serious and I’m here to prove my worth.
“What I do for my club I want to be able to demonstrate it for Argentina.”
The disparity between Argentina’s players’ performances for their clubs and once they pull on the famous sky blue and white shirt has been a central point of discussion for the best part of a decade but it is far too early to file Icardi in that category.
The two-time Serie A Capocannoniere has scored an impressive 107 goals in 183 appearances for Inter but since making his Argentina debut under Alejandro Sabella in October 2013, Icardi has been reduced to just four senior appearances.
Four appearances that are yet to produce a goal but Icardi’s unfairly brief trial under Jorge Sampaoli was hardly the ideal moment to shine and the Rosario-born striker’s subsequent relegation from consideration was harsh.
Icardi is well aware that for all his goals in Italy, there is much to prove for Argentina. “I do not feel important because the truth is that I still haven’t shown anything to earn that respect or be important,” the polemic striker admitted.
“To be important I need to score goals, earn the respect of the group and that is why I am here today. “
“I have to win the public’s love with goals, not with words. Today, I’m lucky that in Inter I score goals and the people love me for that. I hope to do the same here for the national team and bring us great things.”
Sampaoli ultimately took Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín to Russia and although Lionel Scaloni is not the permanent coach, there is a sense that Icardi could now be Argentina’s first choice number nine.
“Scaloni always had a good word to say about me, he showed it to me when he was part of the Sampaoli coaching staff and he continues to show me that I am an important piece for him,” Icardi explained.
“I don’t ask myself why I wasn’t at the World Cup, there is a coach who makes decisions and decided that I wasn’t included. Now I am more thinking about the future than what happened. I’m available and I want to achieve great things.”
Of course for all those who argue it is time for Icardi to don the number nine shirt on a permanent basis, there will always be those who criticise the Inter captain. Icardi’s marriage to Wanda Nara will likely never be forgotten as long as people like Diego Maradona refuse to separate this from the prolific centre-forward’s ability.
“When I receive negative criticism, I don’t pay much attention to it,” Icardi stated, having grown all too accustomed to this type of press.
“I have the character to take such criticism, and even more knowing what Argentine journalism and football is like, I get a lot of criticism for anything.
“I listen to them but they do not hurt me.”
Much of that past negative press where the national team was concerned in the past was that Lionel Messi and his so-called friends club saw to it that Icardi wasn’t selected. A rumour that has always been stringently denied by all parties.
Messi, of course plays no part in the Argentina set-up for the time being, and while Icardi insists there has never been a problem between the two of them, he admitted things didn’t click on the pitch.
“It’s strange [Messi not being part of the squad], but it’s good that Lionel Messi takes a break even if some people do not see it like that.
“We talked and tried in training, but I lacked the time to find a perfect partnership with him. He is the number one in the world.”
In Messi’s absence, new relations must be formed and while injury will prevent it this week, Icardi and new Inter teammates Lautaro Martínez is one partnership of enormous potential.
“In Italy we have complemented each other very well during these two months and we had the possibility of doing it together here.
“I look for the goal more and he likes playing as a playmaker to make the last pass.”
Whether Martínez is a playmaker is debatable but the 21-year-old has demonstrated the versatility to drop deeper and compliment Icardi. If the pair can work on this back in Milan, Argentina will benefit hugely.
For all Icardi’s perceived problems off the pitch, the 25-year-old has demonstrated a professionalism at Inter that has earned him the captain’s armband and resulted in unquestionable success in front of goal.
A new-look Argentina full of a younger generation looking for senior figures, Icardi may not spring to mind but the striker speaks with maturity and brings a wealth of experience that many could learn from.