Long Way to Goal

Six months ago, Franco Armani wasn’t in the plans of Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina’s former coach. “Franco Armani still didn’t play in any major league and there’s no reason for him to receive a call-up for the national team or to be the first goalkeeper", said Argentine fans in the social networks.

But like a fairy tale, Armani is the perfect Cinderella story. From a goalkeeper who barely played in the third division, he was accidentally discovered by a major Colombian club and until he fulfilled his biggest dream: To play with his favorite club and most importantly, to represent his country in the World Cup.

The stages in Armani's career were straight coincidences, since he decided to join the youth club of Estudiantes. It was impossible to play there, so the 20-year-old goalkeeper was loaned to Ferro Carril back in 2006, hoping to get some playing time. Unfortunately, even there he couldn’t get a chance to prove himself and was the third goalkeeper. His luck changed in 2008 when the head coach of third division side, Deportivo Merlo, Luis Felipe De La Riva, searched for a cheap and decent goalkeeper. Armani became their first goalkeeper and helped them to gain promotion to the second division.

Coincidences continued to be part of Armani’s career, as in 2010 Colombian giants Atletico Nacional decided to make their preparation in Argentina. They were scheduled to play against Deportivo Merlo but unfortunately (or not), both of their goalkeepers, Gaston Pezzuti and Eduardo Blandon, were injured, and Merlo loaned Armani to Nacional for the game. The Argentine goalkeeper did great and the staff of Nacional decided to sign him right away and prepare him for the future.

His debut was unforgettable. It was in the Colombian cup match at home vs. Second division side, Itagui. Armani conceded a silly goal in the first minute of the game. In the next two years he didn’t receive too many chances, just a few games here and there, and he himself already was very frustrated from the situation when he saw that he isn’t even included among the goalkeepers of the senior squad. During one of his vacations, he told his family that he doesn’t want to return to Medellin, but they convinced him to keep working hard and fight his place. And then came Daniela.

Daniela Rendon is a local beautiful Colombian girl from Medellin, who works a model. She met Franco and his life changed. They became a couple and she, coming from a religious family, managed to convince him to visit the church sometimes. His luck started to change in July 2012 when he came as a sub instead of injured Pezzuti. Armani himself suffered a serious injury during the game which eventually ended up to be cruciate ligament, but he finished the game as one of the heroes with great saves. This game changed the fans opinions on him. Armani mentioned his injury in an interview: ”I think that everything started at that point. If Nacional would have released me to Deportivo Merlo, I most probably wouldn’t achieve all that. It’s like God told me: ‘You are not leaving Nacional, good things are waiting for you in the future’. And it was the right way indeed.

 The injury was a huge blow for Armani. It was the point where he started to get really close to God and visit the church more often and things started to work out for him. In 2013, Pezzuti left Nacional and Armani was rotated during the semester with other goalkeeper, Luis Martinez. He has won with Nacional three Colombian championships and in 2014 became the first goalkeeper of the team.

Armani continued to improve and established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in South America. He added another Colombian championship to his resume in 2015, which gave Nacional the opportunity to participate in the 2016 Copa Libertadores. Armani was magnificent during the South America’s major competition, along with the rest of the team. He was the first goalkeeper in the history who didn’t concede a single goal during the group stage. He was responsible for one of the biggest saves that year, during the quarter final match vs Rosario Central in Argentina when he had a triple save in the same play. Nacional couldn’t finish such a successful tournament without the cup and they did win it after 27 years. Armani officially became the fans idol. He also broke the non conceding minute record in the domestic league – 1,046 minutes.

Armani was chosen officially as South America’s best goalkeeper in 2016 by “El Pais” and reached the 3rd place of the 2016 South America’s player of the year award. The modest guy from Casilda achieved everything in his career. Well, almost everything. He was never called up to the national team. However, when he was asked to represent Colombia, he politely turned down the offer and stated that he will keep working hard to fulfill his dream of representing his country in Russia 2018.

In January 2018 he moved to River for $3.8M, in what surely looks like a laughable fee now. It didn’t take Armani too long to adjust his new team and to convince the Argentine fans, most who don’t even recognize him, to demand his call-up for the national team. Eventually, after so long, Sampaoli, a native of Casilda himself, called him in April 2018, less than two months before the World Cup. During the first two World Cup games it was Willy Caballero who started, played bad as Argentina drew 1-1 with Iceland and lost 3-0 to Croatia. In their crucial match vs. Nigeria, Armani fulfilled his biggest dream, played and Argentina won 2-1. He also played in the round of 16 vs. France, but the French machine was an impossible opponent for Argentina who lost 4-3, and Armani couldn’t do much to help his team.

Argentina were eliminated but Armani based himself as the first goalkeeper in the national team. In less than a year he managed to set another new club record, this time in River, when he broke the record of former goalkeeper, Amadeo Carrizo, who kept his clean sheet during 769 minutes back in 1968. Armani set record of 965 minutes and was very close to the Argentine record of all-time of 1,075 minutes, but Nico Blandi from San Lorenzo cut it.

He qualified with River to the 2018 Copa Libertaodres and will try to win it for the second time in three years. His career and achievments are remarkable. After he left to River, he received a farewell ceremony in front of 30,000 Nacional’s fans. Will River fans continue to enjoy from the modest Casilda guy? According to his form, probably not.