He walked into the room at the site of this year's World Cup final, and there was a palpable sense of disappointment.
Oh. It's Sergio Romero.
This was weeks ago, at Argentina's first press conference before its tournament opener at Maracana Stadium against Bosnia-Herzegovina. The team was supposed to bring one player out to the podium to talk about the next day's match, and reporters lined up 40 minutes beforehand to get a seat for the player they wanted to see: Lionel Messi.
Instead, the packed house got Romero, who wasn't even the starter for his Monaco team.
You could feel the air go out of the room.
Romero's always been overlooked in one way or another. His nickname is "Chiquito," or "little," because his brothers were taller and played basketball. Romero, 6-foot-4, is by far the biggest player on his soccer team. But he's still "Chiquito."
He was supposed to be a weak link in this tournament. Argentina was considered strong on offense – with Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, and other scorers – but tenuous at best on defense. If it were going to return to Maracana for the final, it would not be on the shoulders of Romero, who wasn't even a lock to get this assignment. So while head coach Alejandro Sabella fielded question after question about his strategy on that day in June, Romero sat mostly unbothered. There was very little the press wanted to ask him.
That has changed dramatically, after three knockout-round clean sheets and a two-save thrill-ride Wednesday in the penalty-kick phase of Argentina's semifinal victory over the Netherlands. The front page of the Argentina newspaper Clarin was plastered not with Messi's iconic face after the victory, but with Romero screaming to the hilltops after one of the two crucial stops he made to give his team a 4-2 edge in the climactic phase of the game.
It was amazing to see a laser-like focus on Romero – all of a sudden. The Argentinian sports-themed newspaper Ole had a Zapruder-like still photo of Romero checking his hands for what looked to be notes in the moments before the first penalty kick. The paper reported that the goalkeeper had a cheat sheet with the tendencies of all the Dutch shooters. Whether that's true or not, it underscored a quiet hero's instant legend. In less than a month, Romero had gone from "Who is he again?" to "How did he do that again?"
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Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal had an answer to both questions in the post-match press conference, informing media that "I taught Romero to stop penalties, so that hurts." It was an odd sort of credit-grab from the new Manchester United boss, who mentored Romero in Holland in 2007, when the goalie was only 20.
Romero himself remained classy with every word he said in his moment of glory.
"He is someone that helped me a lot when I arrived in Holland, in a completely different country with different customs," Romero said of the Netherlands coach. "I will be forever grateful to the coach for helping me out in a country that is so different from ours."
Romero even went so far as to credit "luck" for his success on Wednesday. That's when he wasn't crediting his teammates.
He is the right man at the right moment for Argentina. Fans have always wanted Messi to be the colorful ambassador for the national team, even though he's always been on the shy and reserved side. Comparisons to Diego Maradona always went to personality, with the former No. 10 getting praised for his unbridled emotions and the current No. 10 getting panned for being less gregarious. Sabella's decision to leave beloved forward Carlos Tevez at home only disappointed fans more, as Tevez was the accessible people's champion.
Enter Romero, who is not only gracious but also quite demonstrative. His roars, fist bites and chest thumps after his two saves on Wednesday surely sent chills down the spines of every Churrasco-loving Argentine – if the chills weren't there already.
Tim Krul had stoned the Costa Rica shooters last weekend and became a Guillermo Ochoa-esque overnight sensation in doing so. When Sabella added forwards to the attack late in the match against the Dutch, there was an assumption that he was trying to avoid penalty kicks. Die-hard Argentina fans, deep down, may not have trusted Romero to out-cruel Krul. Turns out we never saw the Dutch monster – Van Gaal used all his subs and couldn't go to him – and instead Chiquito became a giant. By the time Messi coolly deposited his penalty kick into the Dutch goal, the show had already been stolen by Romero.Those fans probably didn't expect such a show from Romero, seeing that Dutch backup goalie
Truth is, Romero has been stellar from the get-go in this tournament. He has made more than a few spectacular saves, bailing out his boys both in the group stage and in the knockout round. He has allowed only three goals: one against Bosnia-Herzegovina after Argentina was up 2-0 late, and two against Nigeria in a mostly meaningless game. There's no stat for "important goals," but in that category, Romero has been perfect.
He will have to remain so as he is now dueling with Manuel Neuer, Germany's goalie and one of the best stoppers in the world. Neuer allowed two goals to Ghana in a strangely chaotic second half, but other than that he's been his usual stalwart self. It is hard to imagine Neuer allowing more than one goal in the World Cup final, especially considering the way Joachim Loew's team plays defense. Romero may well have to be perfect again, except this time against perhaps the best array of scorers he's ever seen.
What started at the Maracana a month ago, with a dash of disappointment, finishes at the same spot, with a crescendo of hope. A nation of Argentines have looked to Leo the Lion to shepherd their team to glory, and now they look to Chiquito to save one more day.
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