At last, at Manchester United, one of the least valued superstars in world football – if there can be such a creature – may just have found the place where he can be truly, madly, deeply appreciated.
The standing ovation which Di Maria soaked up from his new Old Trafford admirers after his thrilling man of the match contribution in United’s crushing defeat of QPR on Sunday had a touch of reverential rediscovery about it.
It felt like the Theatre of Dreams had found a buccaneer with the pace, invention and elan which seemed to have deserted the place of late, a man worthy of inheriting the red number seven shirt previously donned by the likes of George Best, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo.
More than that, you could sense on this breakthrough day for manager Louis Van Gaal the possibility that Di Maria, with all the abundant gifts that make him at nearly 60 million pounds ($97.4 million) the most expensive signing in English football, may have found a club where he could again become the king, not some undervalued courtier.
That’s how Di Maria had begun to feel at Real Madrid. In a galactico panoply, he was the star who, whatever his considerable achievements on the pitch, could never shine quite brightly enough for his club President Florentino Perez not to be dazzled and distracted by new comets.
“Angel was never appreciated. It was like they didn’t want him in the club and showed him no affection,” wailed his dad Miguel.
“My son is tired of always fighting, demonstrating and showing everything.”
He had a point. His boy had been key to Madrid achieving La Decima last season, his numerous assists and electric contributions, capped by his historic slalom sprint down the left flank which led to Gareth Bale’s key goal in that Champions League final, making him invaluable for coach Carlos Ancelotti.
Not for Perez, though, apparently. In came the World Cup flavours of the month, Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez, for untold riches, leaving Di Maria to have to ask once again where he exactly he fitted into the stellar plans.
Eventually he decided.
“Unfortunately, today I have to go but I want to make it clear that I never wished to leave,” he wrote in an open letter to Madrid’s fans, who, to be fair, like his team mates had never taken him for granted.
There was an irony here. If Di Maria had been able to complete his World Cup journey – injury in the quarter-final cut short his growing influence on the competition – who is to say Argentina might not have gone on to win the trophy?
If so, Perez would have had a World Cup-winning galactico on his books and he would have been forced to keep him on. Instead, he was happy to offload someone who was by now apparently demanding financial parity with more lauded team mates. Di Maria’s only real mistake, seemingly though, was not to be as pretty or marketable as a Rodriguez or a Ronaldo.
Yet even if the transfer fee was inflated, nothing so far, as Madrid have struggled to find the team balance and impetus that Di Maria helped Ancelotti find last season, has suggested it was business that made any sense.
They already look as if they miss him. Real kick off their Champions League defence against Basel on Tuesday after a distinctly stuttering start to a campaign in which Ancelotti is no longer able to call upon the man who, like Ronaldo, was so invaluable with his direct, pacy breaks.
Real’s loss already looks United’s gain. Di Maria may have lost the chance to play Champions League football for a season but there are compensations in going to a place where he can feel not just wanted, but needed.
This is a player who, for the last four years, has had to play second, sometimes third, fiddle for club and country despite being one of the very best in the business.
At Real, he was in the shadow of Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and company. For Argentina, another Rosario chum, a certain Lionel Messi, has eclipsed him.
At United, though, a vacancy for someone with a Cantona-esque ability to inspire and electrify awaits. Van Gaal knows it, even if the old schoolmaster in him still had the Dutchman ticking off Di Maria for a few stray passes.
“I see things we can improve,” Van Gaal said. He can also presumably see a man who could act as his side’s main galvanising force, United’s new Angel of the North.
(Reporting By Sam Holden)