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Lionel Messi, Ever Banega and the Rosario Fighters That Fuel Argentina

Daniel Edwards@@DanEdwardsGoalFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2016

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 10:  Lionel Messi #10 of Argentina is lifted into the air by teammate Ever Banega #19 after scoring a goal on a penalty kick against Panama during a match in the 2016 Copa America Centenario at Soldier Field on June 10, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Argentina defeated Panama 5-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Argentina have the luxury of knowing that whatever the result in their final Copa America 2016 group game, they are guaranteed passage to the quarter-finals, and most likely in first place. And their road to the last eight in the United States, once again, has been fired by the contributions of one city in particular. 

Rosario, in the province of Santa Fe some 180 miles from Buenos Aires, is a football town. Its 1.2 million inhabitants are roughly divided into two distinct camps, those who follow Newell's Old Boys and supporters of Rosario Central, making for arguably Argentina's fiercest derby rivalry after Boca Juniors and River Plate

Both giants have made waves in Argentine football recently.

Under the tutelage of Gerardo Martino, Newell's built their best team since Marcelo Bielsa was in charge during the early 1990s, winning the 2013 Torneo Final. The side also battled to the Copa Libertadores semi-final in 2013, where only Ronaldinho's Atletico Mineiro and a late defeat stopped them from making the decider. 

Central, meanwhile, have risen from a painful stay in the second-tier Nacional B to re-establish themselves as one of the toughest teams in the country. A youthful side coached by Eduardo Coudet pushed Boca all the way in last year's Primera Division, while a last-minute Atletico Nacional goal knocked them out of the Libertadores this year in heartbreaking fashion.

Both teams regularly pack their home stadiums, with attendances near 40,000 common week in, week out.

Supporters of Argentina's Rosario Central cheer for their team before the start of the Copa Libertadores Cup football match against Brazil's Gremio, at the Arena do Gremio stadium in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on April 27, 2016.   / AFP / JEFFERSON BERNARDES
JEFFERSON BERNARDES/Getty Images

That passion is not exempt from the violence that plagues the sport. Just hours before Argentina kicked off their Copa America campaign, Matias Franchetti, one of the "capos" of Newell's "barra brava" hooligan group, was shot dead in front of the club gates by unknown assailants on a motorcycle (per La Capital, in Spanish).

This mob-style hit is not uncommon in the murky world of the barras, where rival factions of the same team fight for the lucrative profits synonymous with control of the stands. 

Amos Barshad's account of Rosario's barra problems for The Fader offers a summary of the problem. “Under the pretext of love of a club, spurious criminal business structures are hidden," a Rosario prosecutor explained, and massive illicit profits have fuelled violence, which has little, if anything, to do with football.

In Santa Clara, however, the Rosario connection drove Argentina to victory against Chile. Ever Banega's pass shortly after half-time set up Angel Di Maria to break the deadlock, and the Paris Saint-Germain star returned the favour for the midfielder to double the lead. 

Further back, Javier Mascherano, from the nearby city of San Lorenzo but schooled in the legendary Rosario feeder club Renato Cesarini, ensured that the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal were kept at bay with a typically biting midfield display. Against Panama, too, the city was once more at the forefront. 

Luis Hidalgo/Associated Press

Di Maria had time to set up Nicolas Otamendi's opener against Panama before he was forced off with an injury, the sole blemish on the Albiceleste's evening.

Later, Rosario's most famous son would come on to do his part; three goals for Lionel Messi broke the Canalero resolve and sent the nation marching into the quarters. To put it simply, the current national team would be a shadow of itself without the contribution of its second-largest urban area. 

Along with Di Maria, Messi, Banega and Mascherano, back-up goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman and Ezequiel Lavezzi also hail from the city. If not for a miserable run of injuries, Ezequiel Garay would almost certainly be in the U.S. too, marshalling the defence.

The man on the bench, Gerardo Martino, adds another name to the list as he aims for a third straight Copa America final as a coach—the winning man last time round, ex-Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli, is another neighbour. 

Nor does the production line show any sign of slowing down. Success in the Olympic Games will depend on young stars like Angel Correa and Mauro Icardi giving their best in Brazil. Outgoing Central pair Franco Cervi and Giovani Lo Celso will be soon lining up for Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively, per Pagina 12 (h/t Get French Football News). Both will also be looking to shine, as will Gaston Gil Romero, Victor Salazar and Franco Escobar. 

Central's Franco Cervi
Central's Franco CerviJEFFERSON BERNARDES/Getty Images

All of the above call the "Cradle of the Argentine flag" home, and if the trend continues, a change in slogan to the "Cradle of the Argentine national team" may well be in order. 

The current generation of Albiceleste stars grew up in close proximity, in the fiercely competitive climes of infant football in the city. Banega, for one, remembers clashes with the young Messi when he was still learning his trade. 

"I was in a lower age category, but my father was the coach of the 1987 age group and he used to play me in that division," he told La Nacion (in Spanish) during the current Copa, as he recalled rather lopsided games between his Nuevo Horizonte team and the all-conquering Grandoli of La Pulga. 

"It was a waste of time because we would play against the dwarf and he made us all look stupid. He was tiny, the kit was too big for him, but what he used to do was already far too good." 

Almost all the Rosario contingent are further united by memories of past sacrifices. The city was one of the centres of Argentine industry and one of the hardest hit when the chimneys started to shut down in the 1990s. "All that was left was for us to eat was wet mud; it was a tough upbringing," Banega remembers of his infancy.

Di Maria helped out in his family's tiny coal-making shed to make ends meet between games as a youngster. 

Messi, meanwhile, was helped by a more affluent background, but he was not immune to the crisis of 2001. The sudden devaluation of the Argentine peso meant Newell's could no longer sustain his hormone treatments, putting in motion his emigration to Catalonia at the age of 13.

One of the most striking aspects of the current Argentina squad is its complete lack of divas or selfish personalities, and those shared childhood experiences surely explain at least, in part, this admirable solidarity. 

Banega and Mascherano will almost certainly receive a well-earned rest against Bolivia, while Messi will continue his gradual return from a back injury with a run-out, and Guzman and Lavezzi hope to make their first appearances in the dead rubber.

But one thing is for certain: Rosario will once more play a big part in the Albiceleste's plans, and the city's impeccable football pedigree continues to fire the national team. 

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