For any player with over 60 Argentina appearances and a club career that took him from Boca Juniors to Real Madrid and ended with 14 titles, it’s perhaps difficult to suggest that they underachieved and yet when Fernando Gago confirmed his retirement there was an overwhelming sense of what might have been.
The 34-year-old decided it was time to hang up his boots almost 16 years since making his Boca debut and for anyone who had the pleasure of watching the graceful midfielder at his best they know that his achievements in the game fail to capture his natural talent.
“I’ve taken the decision to finish my career as a professional footballer,” Gago posted on his Instagram account.
“After 15 years of playing, I’m choosing this path with total calm and satisfaction. As everyone knows, I’ve lived some fantastic moments and I’ve enjoyed a career that I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams as a child.
“I also had difficult moments, repeated injuries which affected me in these last few years, but at the same time they taught me and they made me the person I am today. Now I find myself without physical problems, I’ve achieved the objectives I wanted to and that’s why I’m deciding to take a step aside.
“I’m happy to be leaving football my way, through my own decision, at this moment.”
Ending his career on his own terms and not on the treatment table is a positive that many didn’t expect when Gago resolutely continued to fight back from multiple career threatening injuries. Three achilles ruptures and two cruciate knee ligament operations in the past five years would have been enough to persuade most that their time is up.
Gago though, persuaded by former teammate Gabriel Heinze, worked his way back to fitness once more to continue at Vélez. A new season under a new manager Mauricio Pellegrino it was perhaps Sunday’s physically demanding draw with Gimnasia that proved the final straw for Gago. The midfielder was far from his best and appeared targeted by the home team with a series of heavy challenges.
Financially comfortable and with the realisation that he is no longer able to perform at the level he once did, Gago has opted to walk away. An astute move from an intelligent footballer who can now focus on the next stage of his career – one that looks destined for a coaching role of some description.
A new generation of Argentine players could certainly benefit from the insight of Gago.
As a graduate of Boca Juniors’ academy Gago made his senior debut against Quilmes at the end of 2004 and during a period of instability following the departure of Carlos Bianchi as manager, the youngster made an immediate impression.
The following year the first glimpses of a on-field relationship with Lionel Messi that most others have failed to come close to for the national team was clear as Argentina under-20s lifted the World Cup in Holland. And Gago, now an integral part of Boca’s first eleven, would also win his first league title and the Copa Sudamericana that year attracting interest from across Europe.
Real Madrid would close the deal for the midfielder many had dubbed ‘the new Fernando Redondo’ at the end of 2006 for in excess of €20 million. Two league titles in his first two seasons in Madrid, the second of which saw Gago play a prominent role only added to his rapidly burgeoning reputation and yet injury problems began to appear.
Slipping down the pecking order under Jose Mourinho, Gago would find himself out on loan at Roma before a 2013 switch to Valencia and despite joining Vélez on loan that year, the midfielder remained a key part of Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina side. La Albiceleste swept through World Cup qualification with Gago’s relationship with the now all-conquering Messi a vital element only for a knee injury while back at Boca hindering his participation at the World Cup in Brazil.
Lucas Biglia eventually took Gago’s place in Sabella’s midfield in Brazil where Argentina finished as runners-up and although there were brief appearances after that serious injuries had begun to stack up leaving the 2008 Olympic gold medal as Gago’s only international title since that under-20 golden generation.
Were it not for injury there is no doubt that Gago would have achieved so much more. Very few players can boast the technique, awareness and passing of the midfield maestro.
“Football is my passion and it will always continue to be,” his parting message upon confirming his retirement. The hope is that he can now help develop the next Fernando Gago.