Love and money: How Napoli trumped Arsenal to sign Higuain from Real Madrid

Goal Transfer List 2013: After seven seasons in Spain, the Argentina striker joined Rafa Benitez’s revolution, just days after he seemed set on a move to the Gunners

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

The deal was close to completion. Gonzalo Higuain was set on a move to Arsenal, with the Gunners close to finalising a fee with Real Madrid and wages all agreed. But as Arsene Wenger wavered, Napoli pounced.

Furious fans of the North London club vented their anger. Already deep into the transfer window, Arsenal had failed to sign a single elite player and, in the meantime, rivals Tottenham were spending big. How could they miss out on what had looked like a done deal?

Wenger was keen on Higuain, but played hardball over the striker’s valuation (offering just over €27 million when Madrid wanted more) and continued to keep an eye on other objectives. Distracted by the possibility of recruiting top target Luis Suarez from Liverpool, a move for the Argentine was put on ice – and Higuain soon suspected he may be better off elsewhere.

Because this was precisely what the 26-year-old was so keen to avoid. At Real Madrid, Higuain was forced to fight for his place from the very beginning. And while that role was accepted by the fresh-faced 19-year-old who arrived from River Plate in January of 2007, the striker grew tired at a lack of opportunities and was set to leave after Madrid’s title triumph in 2011-12 – having competed all season for the starting spot with Karim Benzema.

Higuain wore a shirt signed by all of his Madrid team-mates as the club celebrated their Liga success at the Cibeles fountain in May 2012. It was his way of saying goodbye, but the support of the fans during the party at the Bernabeu and a chat with Jose Mourinho early in the summer convinced Pipita to stay.

Mourinho stayed true to his word and handed Higuain more opportunities at the beginning of last season, but the team started slowly and soon found themselves well off the pace in La Liga. As the season wore on, the striker grew frustrated once again and made a definitive decision to leave after he was booed by his own fans when coming off with the scores still goalless in Real’s 2-0 Champions League victory at home to Borussia Dortmund. That night, Madrid had needed to win by three and Higuain had missed a wonderful chance early in the game, when Mourinho’s men had been so desperate for an opening goal.

The Argentine was met with timid applause in what would be his final competitive game for the club, at home to Osasuna, and revealed afterwards that his mind was made up. “I would like to go somewhere where I feel I am truly loved and appreciated,” he said.

At Arsenal, he suspected that may not be the case and the Gunners’ dallying allowed Napoli to enter the race for his signature. New coach Rafa Benitez had already paid good money for Madrid pair Raul Albiol (€12m) and Jose Callejon (€10m) and talks soon started over the Argentina forward, as the Spaniard sought a replacement for Paris-Saint Germain-bound Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani.

Benitez, Albiol and Callejon are all represented by Spanish agent Manuel Garcia Quilon and that connection facilitated further negotiations with Madrid as Napoli stole a march on Arsenal for two further reasons: firstly, the Italians’ interest in Higuain was definite, with Benitez keen to make him an integral part of the club’s new project; secondly, they were willing to pay more money.

Needing funds to finance a world-record move for Gareth Bale, Madrid president Florentino Perez was keen to recoup the cash quickly. And the more the better. Napoli offered €35m and then €37m – and the deal was soon done. The three sales, plus the deadline-day departure of Mesut Ozil to Arsenal (who did act fast and firmly this time) provided the funds for Florentino to sign the Welshman from Tottenham.

Ozil’s arrival appeased Arsenal fans and the Gunners have enjoyed a superb start to the season, but the fading form of Olivier Giroud has highlighted the need for a top-class striker like Higuain. Madrid, meanwhile, look strong with Benzema in the side after the Frenchman overcame a difficult few weeks at the start of the current campaign, when he was targeted by the Bernabeu boo-boys.

Napoli’s total outlay of €88.3m over five years, as highlighted in the Goal Transfer List 2013, includes €30m in wages but already looks a price well worth paying for the Serie A side, despite elimination in the Champions League group stages as Arsenal and Dortmund advanced in the competition’s most difficult sector.

“There is no [Diego] Maradona [at Napoli],” Benitez said recently. “Our team is based on the collective, although Higuain is perhaps the most essential player here right now. He doesn’t only score goals, he also makes the team play better.”

Wenger, meanwhile, has moved on and claimed he does not regret losing out on Pipita. “Higuain is in good hands and he is a great striker, but we have Giroud who is also a great striker,” he said last week.

As the title race develops and, with Bayern Munich ahead in the Champions League, however, the Frenchman may yet rue his Higuain hesitation.

So while Madrid were unable to persuade the striker to stay this time and Arsenal delayed, Napoli knew just what they would be getting with the Argentine – and exactly how to get him. Love and money.

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