They couldn't believe it. When word first began to filter through that Daniele De Rossi—a FIFA World Cup winner with Italy in 2006 and a bona fide AS Roma legend having played his whole professional career with his hometown team—was going to join Boca Juniors, the reaction of football fans in Argentina was incredulity.
"When Nicolas Burdisso—who was one of De Rossi's teammates at Roma and is now director of football at Boca Juniors—came out and said a couple of months ago, 'We're going to get Daniele De Rossi,' people laughed," says Sam Kelly, founder of the Hand of Pod podcast.
"Boca have done this in previous years, saying they were going to bring in this-and-that signing. They did it with Ronaldinho a few years ago, and it tends to get laughed at.
"Then we heard De Rossi was mulling over whether to come to Buenos Aires or to move to L.A. At that point, everyone here in Argentina thought he's obviously going to L.A. Galaxy because they will pay him on time. They'll probably pay him more. If you had De Rossi's money, wouldn't you rather be in Los Angeles than Buenos Aires?
"Then he said: 'I'm retiring from football.' Fans from [Boca's rivals] River Plate were saying, 'OK, De Rossi was so desperate not to come to Boca Juniors that he's decided to retire instead.' Suddenly, one day, he said he'd changed his mind and was going to come to Boca.
"It's a weird situation. I still can't get that it has happened. From 16 years of following the Argentinian league, I've always wanted to see a European with no connections to Argentina be sentimental enough or curious enough to come down here and take part in this wonderful footballing culture that Argentina has, with all of its problems, but also with a lot of good things.
"He's clearly not done it for money but for personal reasons. You often hear the cliche from footballers, 'I'd love to play in La Bombonera [Boca's iconic stadium].' He appears to really mean it."
De Rossi, who turned 36 in July, has had a glittering career. He made his Serie A debut with AS Roma under Fabio Capello in January 2003, and he won the league's prestigious Player of the Year award in 2009, which is a notable achievement for a defensive midfielder.
He also scored in Italy's penalty shootout victory against France in the 2006 FIFA World Cup final in Germany, and he amassed more than a century of caps for his national team before retiring in 2017.
"It's a surprise that De Rossi has come here," says Carlos Navarro Montoya, a legendary goalkeeper with Boca Juniors who is known as "El Mono" (The Monkey) by fans. "You could see the reaction when he arrived in Buenos Aires at the airport. It was packed with a lot of fans. The people of Boca received him very well, with fondness. You can see it has affected him.
"The fans have a lot of empathy for him because he has chosen to come here instead of more lucrative offers in other countries. I admire him for this. He could play with another team in another league with fewer obligations, less pressure, but instead, he decided to take this challenge. Boca is a team that is under permanent pressure to win all the competitions it enters.
"It's about something more than football. He's taken it for personal reasons. It's about 'ilusion' (a dream). He didn't come here for any other reason. He's prioritising sporting goals, obviously, rather than the pursuit of money. It's a distinctive story, something different."
De Rossi is travelling in unchartered territory. Several of his former teammates at AS Roma played in Argentina's premier division, including Fernando Gago, who featured for Boca Juniors in last year's Copa Libertadores final; Gabriel Heinze, who left AS Roma to play with Newell's Old Boys in 2012; and Burdisso, who learnt his trade as a youth team player at Boca and in its first team for several seasons before leaving for Italy. He returned to the club as sporting director earlier in 2019.
There have been several Argentinian greats who have come home after triumphing in the great leagues of Europe, such as Diego Maradona; Juan Roman Riquelme, who returned to Boca from Villarreal in 2007; and Carlos Tevez, now a teammate of De Rossi's at Boca having first returned to the club from Juventus in 2015 after playing in that year's UEFA Champions League final.
What makes De Rossi's case stand out is that he is a top European-born player. Even players like the former Juventus pair Mauro Camoranesi—a FIFA World Cup winner with De Rossi in 2006 who finished his playing career with spells at two clubs in Buenos Aires, Lanus and Racing—and David Trezeguet, the scorer of France's golden goal in the UEFA Euro 2000 final and whose goals helped River Plate gain promotion in 2012, both grew up in Argentina.
"The only precedent for this high-profile a European coming to Argentina would be Trezeguet joining River during River's season in the second division, but obviously Trezeguet has connections to Buenos Aires because he grew up here, and he grew up as a River fan. On the one hand, European, check. World Cup winner, check. Slightly over the hill but clearly better than everyone else in the league, check.
"On the other hand, his arrival wasn't quite as surprising—except to Europeans—because people in Argentina were aware that Trezeguet had spent his adolescence in Buenos Aires before he went to Monaco. De Rossi is completely from left field. He doesn't have any connection with Buenos Aires. He just fancied coming here to play football."
Pablo Lisotto, a journalist with La Nacion, notes that Boca fans have already started motivating De Rossi by shouting "Forza Tano!", a reference to the abbreviation "tano."
In Argentina, locals refer affectionately to an Italian as "tano." Boca's roots, of course, go back to an Italian neighbourhood in Buenos Aires in which the club sprung from in 1905.
"In the neighbourhood where Boca originated, the inhabitants call it the 'Republic of Boca,' as if that was a country in itself," says Lisotto. "There, most of the people are of Italian origin living in 'conventillos' (tenements). Immigrants having arrived from cities like Naples and Genoa. Boca's nickname 'The Xeneizes' comes from 'Los Genoveses'—from Genoa, the Italian port city."
Lisotto believes that De Rossi's robust, all-action style will help him to adapt to the rigours of Argentinian football. Famously, De Rossi has a hazard-symbol tattoo on one of his calf muscles of a footballer snapping into another player's ankle with a sliding tackle, and he wears a No. 16 jersey in homage to the notorious Manchester United enforcer Roy Keane.
"This type of play is very familiar for Boca," says Lisotto. "The kind of player who fights for every ball. Historically, those players are well recognised at Boca. The club's fans appreciate the player who physically gives everything on the pitch—those players who sweat the jersey."
Diego Simeone, who returned from his European adventures to play with Racing in 2005, sounded a note of caution, however, when speaking to No Toda Pasa (h/t Ole).
He reckons De Rossi could struggle to adapt to the more freewheeling nature of Argentinian league football:
"It's not going to be easy for De Rossi. He comes from an Italian culture that is very tactical. The spaces are reduced, with the lines of the team close together. In Argentinian football, the teams are much more open, and this is complicated for those who are not used to it. It happened to me when I came back from Spain. The spaces on the field in Argentina were much more open, and I found this very hard."
So far, the signs are good, though. De Rossi scored on his debut last week with a header in a Copa Argentina game against Almagro, although Boca lost the tie on penalties.
The real test begins on Wednesday when Boca play the first leg of their quarter-final Copa Libertadores clash against LDU Quito in Ecuador. If, as expected, Boca progress, they could face eternal rivals River Plate in the semi-final.
It would give Boca a chance to avenge last year's historic defeat in the final and bring De Rossi within a step of achieving what he claimed on Boca's website would be "the crowning moment" of his career. It would be the realisation of an amazing dream.
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