Franco Armani – the game changer

By Andrés Godø

“To create something exceptional, your mindset must be relentlessly focused on the smallest detail.

– Georgio Armani

These words belong to the world-famous Italian designer legend Georgio Armani and it was said during an interview where he was asked about how he stood out from the other hopefuls trying to make their way in an unrelenting business world of designers. It could might as well have been said about his argentine namesake, the goalkeeper for River Plate Franco Armani.

Since arriving with the Argentine giants in Buenos Aires in January, 2018 from Colombia’s best team Atlético Nacional of Medellin for a modest fee of €3.15M, he’s proven to be one of, if not the best goalkeeper in the South America. He’s been outstanding for River Plate and has been a major key to their success in the continent’s biggest club tournament: The Copa Libertadores, where River will play their second final in consecutive years on November 23rd in Santiago against Brazilian giants Flamengo.

But it hasn’t always been as easy for the 33-year-old goalkeeper from the neighborhood of Casilda, Santa Fe. After being brought up through the Estudiantes La Plata system he failed to make a senior appearance at the club and left on loan aFerro Carril Oeste, a club from the neighbourhood of Caballito, Buenos Aires. After spending two years at Ferro he moved on to Deportivo Merlo, another Buenos Aires outfit club and another two years on loan, but that’s also where he ended up getting his big break and where the cliché of “being at the right time in the right place” proved to be true.

Colombian giants Atlético Nacional had a pre-season match scheduled against Deportivo Merlo and the Merlo-goalkeeper who was supposed to be in net for them got injured during warm ups. Enter Franco Armani.

Although Deportivo Merlo lost the game, he made enough of an impression for Atlético Nacional to bring him north to Colombia and that’s where Armani’s career really took off. He stayed in Colombia for eight seasons and became their undisputed first choice goalkeeper. During his stay in Colombia he became a true fan hero for Los Verdes winning a total of thirteen trophies. He was a key part in Atlético Nacional winning the Copa Libertadores against Independiente del Valle in 2016, bringing the most coveted club title on the continent to Medellin for only the second time and the first since 1989.

During his stay in Colombia he also had to face his current team in a major continental tournament, as Atlético Nacional and River Plate faced off in the 2014 Copa Sudamericana final, the South American equivalent of the Europa League. After managing a 1-1 draw at home in Medellin, River Plate proved to be too strong in the decisive game, winning 2-0 at home to claim the first major trophy under current River-manager Marcelo Gallardo.

Being a successful team on the South American continent usually means that repeating the feat of winning major titles is hard to come by. The teams winning the Copa Sudamericana and Copa Libertadores ordinarily consist of a good mix of elder players with experience from having played in Europe, but returning to their native country (or continent) to see out a long career and young, talented players who are hungry to prove themselves for a move overseas to the better leagues of Europe, even if it means playing in a low standard league on the European continent. As was the case of the 2014 and 2015 version of River Plate. 

River Plate with Gallardo at the helm took home the grandest prize of them all in 2015, beating Tigres UANL of México in the Copa Libertadores final. Two continental finals let alone two continental finals wins in two years is as close to unheard of as you can come in South America, yet River managed to do it. But it all came at a hefty cost as Gallardo found himself having to rebuild the River squad almost player by player. The very steady Marcelo Barovero who had spent three and a half years at El Monumental since joining from rival Veléz Sarsfield left for México and Club Necaxa and the project of youngster Augusto Batalla taking over the reigns as Rivers number one didn’t pan out the way they hoped. Rumours soon surfaced that Gallardo had his eyes set on the (then) 31 year old from Casilda.

During the winter break of 2018 (or summer, depending on which continent you are on), the argentine giants decided to pay the release clause of Armani and bring him south to his native Argentina again. Before River captured his signature there were several rumors about possible places where Armani could end up, including some to Boca Juniors.

Franco Armani had during his stay in Colombia married a Colombian and the Atlético Nacional-fans viewed Armani as one of their own. His popularity in Colombia was tremendous and the Colombian FA were actively working for Armani to become a Colombian national so that he could be a part of the upcoming 2018 World Cup squad in Russia, but Armani’s desire to play for his native Argentina at the grandest stage of them all lead him to return to Argentina, thinking he’d have a better chance at being picked if playing in Argentina rather than Colombia. He was right.

Some stellar performances upon his return to Argentina saw him getting called up to the Albiceleste for the 2018 World Cup, where he also made his debut versus Nigeria.

Franco Armani in a River Plate shirt had an instant impact, crowned (literally) as “Man of the Match” in the first competitive game of the season where River Plate faced eternal rivals Boca Juniors in La Plata in the Supercopa Argentina 2017, winning the game 2-0. The MotM-award was sponsored by fast food company Burger King and a very famous picture of Armani being interviewed after the performance wearing a Burger King crown has since gone viral.

But his impact had just started. Even though River Plate ended up in 8th place in the Superliga Argentina that season, they managed to reach the 2018 Copa Libertadores final where they would meet their eternal rival once again, in the first finals meeting between the two Argentine giants ever in a continental cup.

After managing a 2-2 draw at La Bombonera in the first leg, the return leg that was moved to Madrid and Armani stood tall in the 3-1 River Plate win, securing River’s fourth Copa Libertadores final win and their second in three years. He’s proved to be a bargain buy for River Plate and they have since restructured his current contract upping his initial release clause and with good reason.

Rumors of Armani moving to Europe has been there for a while and French giants Paris Saint-Germain have reportedly been interested in him for a year and had scouts in place in this year Copa Libertadores semi-final. Whether there are any truths to those specific rumours remains to be seen, but the possibility of Armani pulling a Barovero and leaving for a big club in México to finish out his career and earning some big money is definitely there still. But as a River-fan puts it: “Every transfer window is a success if Armani stays”. It’s hard to disagree.

The story of Franco Armani and River plate seems to be nothing less of a perfect fit. The general rule of Argentine football seems to be that if you’re one of the big teams you’re either going all in on the league or you’re betting on one of the continental cups. Very rarely you’re in a position to do both. River Plate currently finds themselves in a unique position in that regard. They have, probably their best chance, to win the Argentine Superliga this year, they are in the semifinals of the Copa Argentina and they are playing their second Libertadores final in as many years on November 23rd against Flamengo in Santiago, Chile. In 2014 they also had a shot at the league title but fell short to Racing Club after a decisive loss at the end of the season away at the Cilindrio (they also went all in on the continental cups).

Besides the tactical mastermind of Marcelo Gallardo, a lot of the credit is due to Franco Armani. No one supporting River is longer talking aloud about missing Marcelo Barovero between the sticks and Armani’s steady play for Los Millonarios have impressed far more people than on the South American continent alone. He’s even earned the nickname El Pulpo – The Octopus, a reference to his ability to put up the number of amazing saves he does. The definition of a game changer is: a newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way.” That description certainly seems to describe Franco Armani.

Andrés FG Godoe runs the River Plate Noruega Twitter account and along with River Plate in English will be launching the River Plate podcast