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Sergio Romero: An unlikely hero

SAO PAULO -- He stretched out wide, his hands as giant flyswatters. Once. Twice. He carries everyone on his shoulders. His teammates, the coaching staff, his wife and kids, his siblings and friends in the stands, the rest of the fans in Sao Paulo, his parents in the south, and millions of other Argentines far away. And even those who doubted him too.

Yes, people doubted Sergio Romero. His lack of regular play at Monaco generated a lot of criticism. Yet Argentina head coach Alejandro Sabella confirmed him many months before revealing the final list of 23 players for Brazil. He never doubted his goalkeeper, the man whose hands helped Argentina advance to the World Cup final. The man who stepped up with confidence. The man who has made many people think again.

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In the opening match against Bosnia-Herzegovina, he began to silence his critics at once. He shut down Izet Hajrovic in a one-on-one and made a low save on Senad Lulic's header in the 2-1 victory. He was key in the 1-0 win over Iran, looking his best during headers by Reza Ghoochannejhad and Ashkan Dejagah, and a cross shot by Ghoochannejhad. There wasn't much he could do in the 3-2 win against Nigeria.

In the 1-0 round of 16 win against Switzerland, he blocked a shot by Granit Xhaka and stopped a Xherdan Shaquiri free kick. And in the victory against Belgium in the quarterfinals, he hardly had to work because of the great defense. He punched away all centers well and kept a clean sheet in four of six matches.

Sergio Romero came up with two stops in the semifinal shootout versus the Netherlands to help send Argentina to the World Cup final.
Sergio Romero came up with two stops in the semifinal shootout versus the Netherlands to help send Argentina to the World Cup final.

The ex-Racing de Avellaneda goalkeeper's success is the fruit of his hard work. "To put it simply, my job is to block the ball and keep it from going in," he says. Easy, as easy as he makes stopping his opponents' dangerous shots look.

Prior to the shootout against the Netherlands, Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano said to him, " Today, you become a hero ."

In the mixed zone postmatch, Romero gave more details about what was said: "He told me today would be different. After a year in which I received so much criticism, he told me that I was going to help, that it was my time. He told me to stay calm, cool. Thank God it turned out well, and I give thanks to him and all my teammates."

Although the humble goalkeeper speaks of "luck," the FIFA U20 World Cup winner in 2007 studied his opponents. Yes, Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt changed sides on where they would shoot. He had a piece of notepaper in his pants with a phrase to motivate him. "I knew that if I dove to the side where they normally shot, I would stop one." He stopped Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder. It was tough to watch for Louis van Gaal, the coach who welcomed him into Dutch soccer when he signed for AZ Alkmaar.

Dressed in yellow, the 6-foot-3 goalie celebrated by thumping his chest with this right fist. "Eli, Jaz, Chlo. I love you," read the dedication to his wife and kids on his tank top. Chiquito, or "the little one" as he's called, is now a giant and is destined to continue breaking records with the Argentine national team.

He won a gold medal in Beijing in 2008 but finished his first World Cup experience with a painful 0-4 defeat in the quarterfinals at South Africa 2010. The opponent? Germany. Yes, the very same team he'll face in the much-awaited final on Sunday at the Maracan√£ Stadium.

Sergio Romero was born in 1987, three years before Italy '90. Then, the penalties saved by Sergio Goycochea were the key for runners-up Argentina. Today, Romero has a leading role in another great moment in history.

Nicolas Baier is senior editor based in Buenos Aires at Latin America. Nico is in charge of coverage of the Argentine National Team. Follow him on Twitter @NicolasBaier