From Messi to Bielsa—Why Rosario in Argentina Is 'The Cradle of Football'

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 13, 2019

Kids play football at Newell's Old Boys' Malvinas Sports Complex
Kids play football at Newell's Old Boys' Malvinas Sports ComplexGetty

Rosario is a small port city about four hours' drive north of Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. It has a little over a million inhabitants and is dwarfed by greater Buenos Aires, which has more than 13 million people.

Rosario, though, has a reputation for producing an inordinate amount of talent. It's said the city is a "semillero" (seedbed) because so many notable people have sprung from it. It is, for example, the birthplace of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and perhaps the greatest footballer of all time, Lionel Messi.

"Rosario has a reputation for being the source of great footballers," says Javier Wainer, who works as a scout for Racing, a premier division club in Buenos Aires. "It's known as 'la cuna de futbol'—the cradle of football. A lot of Argentina's best players are from the city—Messi, Angel Di Maria, Mauro Icardi.

"You always have many good players coming from there. Rosario is like a dream city, along with Montevideo in Uruguay, which has been the birthplace for so many players who have won World Cups [1930, 1950]. In both cities, you have a small density of population, but you have great players born in both cities. It's amazing to think about it."

Several sons of Rosario are plying their trade in Europe's biggest football leagues along with Messi. They include some of La Liga's best players, such as Sevilla's Ever Banega, Giovani Lo Celso from Real Betiswho is being linked with a club-record transfer to Tottenham Hotspur this summer—Ezequiel Garay of Copa del Rey winners Valencia, and Atletico Madrid's Angel Correa. AC Milan's centre-back Mateo Musacchio, who has been playing in Serie A since 2017, is also from Rosario.

Part of the city's success as a breeding ground for footballers springs out of necessity. The city's two football clubs, Rosario Central and Newell's Old Boys, can't match the spending power of the bigger teams in Buenos Aires like Boca Juniors, River Plate and Independiente.

"Rosario doesn't have the economic muscle that Buenos Aires has," says Ale Mangiaterra, a journalist with Rosario's Radio2 station. "River and Boca can buy footballers. They have a lot more money than Rosario's football clubs. They have important political and historical links with the central powers of Buenos Aires. Newell's and Central must depend on developing new players, and to sell on their best players to generate more money. As a result their youth academies are stronger.

"Central, for example, had to sell Giovani Lo Celso to Paris Saint-Germain and Franco Cervi to Benfica [in 2016]. Newell's have lost some of the biggest figures in world of football. Messi left at 12 years of age. Maxi Rodriguez was sold to Atletico Madrid and then he went to Liverpool. Now he's returned to Newell's at the end of his career."

Di Maria and Messi are sons of Rosario
Di Maria and Messi are sons of RosarioBENJAMIN CREMEL/Getty Images

Ruben Horacio Gaggioli, a businessman from Rosario who has been living in Barcelona since the late 1970s, represented Messi when he was signed by Barcelona in 2000. He says part of the reason that Rosario—and its hinterland—has produced so many good footballers is because its young players have an insatiable appetite to succeed.

"Central and Newell's work a lot with young footballers, developing them for the first team," says Gaggioli. "Those young players need to provide for their families. Their hunger to succeed is very strong because they aren't kids from wealthy families. These aren't kids who earn money. It's not like in Spain—where an under-age player can have their own car. They earn a salary. They live well. They go to school. In Rosario, these kids don't have anything. So when they enter the pitch, they will lay down their lives to win. They have this essence to become great players.

"But it's not just in the city of Rosario. It's also about its surrounding areas. There's a zone of influence which is very rich in football players. A lot of Newell's greatest players—Jorge Valdano, Mauricio Pochettino, Gabriel Batistuta—come from its outlying areas. They come from the famous 'potrero.' It's something in Europe that practically doesn't exist. The potrero is where kids play on the street, on patches of open, uneven ground. This is where these young footballers are still created.

"Clubs like Newell's and Central go to villages around Rosario and find these kids in these potreros. It's fertile hunting terrain. These kids are very talented. Then it's a question of perfecting them. Definitely the percentage of high-level footballers who come out of Rosario is superior to the rest of the country, proportionally speaking. But why so many trainers come out of Rosario is the question."

Rosario is a university town for some of football's greatest minds. Cesar Luis Menotti, who managed Argentina to its first FIFA World Cup win in 1978, was born in the city. He played for Central and later coached Newell's and Barcelona. 

Newell's in particular is a hotbed for managers. The club's graduates include Pochettino, Valdano, who led Real Madrid to a league title in 1995, former Barcelona and current Mexico coach Tata Martino, Argentina's 2018 FIFA World Cup coach Jorge Sampaoli, his protege and current Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni, Real Madrid's erstwhile manager Santiago Solari and, of course, the iconic Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds United's coach.

Marcelo Bielsa
Marcelo BielsaMichel Spingler/Associated Press

Bielsa, who played a handful of games for Newell's as a defender in the late 1970s, had a short, glorious spell as Newell's first-team coach in the early '90s. His reign is best remembered for their run to the 1992 Copa Libertadores final with a team that included Martino, Pochettino and Eduardo Berizzo, now Paraguay's coach. They ended up losing to Sao Paulo in a penalty shootout in the decider, the closest they've ever come to lifting South American football's biggest prize.

A young Sampaoli used to listen to Bielsa's press conferences on his Walkman while out jogging. Bielsa's influence at Newell's is so profound that the club's stadium is named after him.

"Bielsa is the father of them all," says Wainer. "Bielsa thinks of football in terms of attacking, of a high press, dominating space. His training legacy is so big. Pep Guardiola says Bielsa is a teacher for him. In Rosario, he created exercises for his methods in his house with a pencil and paper. He revolutionised football coaching.

"You can trace the philosophical line, his line of teaching. It's called 'Bielsismo.' You can find the sons of Bielsa everywhere. Gabriel Heinze, who is manager of Velez Sarsfield, play exactly like Bielsa. My father, Gabriel Wainer, worked with Bielsa with Argentina's national team between 1998 and 2004. My father knows everything about football thanks to Bielsa. My father taught me and my brother, who is now an assistant coach at Defensa, a premier division club in Argentina. We're the grandsons of the Bielsa line of football."

It's interesting how Messi, even though he has spent almost two-thirds of his life living in Spain, refuses to cut the umbilical cord he has with Rosario. He has bought the family home where he grew up in Rosario—it's idle but kept by the family. His wife is from Rosario. He had his wedding in Rosario. He returns there every year on holiday.

"Messi talks like a Rosario boy, exactly like he always lived there," says Ramiro Martin, his Argentina-born biographer.

"People from Rosario don't pronounce the 's' at the end of a sentence. For example instead of saying 'autos' (cars) they say 'auto.' It's how Messi speaks. It's strange but true. He has a very close relationship with Rosario. Andoni Zubizarreta [Barcelona's former sporting director] used to say that 'Messi was a Rosarian boy who lived in Barcelona.' Every day, he talks with Rosarian people. He lives like Rosarian people, but he plays football in Barcelona.

A Messi mural in Rosario
A Messi mural in RosarioNatacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

"Messi's iconic status, though, is more than Rosario. His relationship with Rosario is with his childhood memories, of playing in the streets of his 'barrio' with his brothers, with his first friends, who he still maintains friendships with.

"Messi is too big to think about only in terms of Rosario. He's possibly the biggest athlete in the history of Argentina. Argentina is another scale. His relationship with Argentina is emotional and visceral. It's love-hate. People in Argentina put all their frustrations on Messi. This relationship is very strong. His relationship with Rosario is more tranquil. Messi feels like he owes something to Argentina's people."

Messi will get another chance to pay his dues to Argentina when his team begin their Copa America journey—a tournament in which Messi's Argentina have lost three finals [2007, 2015, 2016] during his career—when they play Colombia on Sunday. He will be hoping that fellow Rosarians like Di Maria and Lo Celso can finally help him to lay to rest a ghost by winning a major international tournament with Argentina.

              

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz

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