Tottenham’s exciting new option Giovani Lo Celso is just the latest talent to emerge from Rosario. Adam Bate speaks to Mauricio Pochettino and others from the player’s home town to understand the background to his rise, as well as the roots he shares with Lionel Messi and his new coach…
Giovani Lo Celso is from Rosario and that matters. It matters because it matters to him. He is 23, with so much left to achieve in European football, his Premier League adventure with Tottenham Hotspur barely under way, but one day he insists he will return home to the city that made him. The city that has made so many great Argentine football figures.
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There is Lionel Messi, of course. Perhaps the greatest of them all. He wasn’t Lo Celso’s hero, however. He wore the wrong shirt. Newell’s Old Boys, not Rosario Central. A leproso not a canalla, a leper rather than a scoundrel, the nicknames having been established when the former club stepped in to play a game for a leprosy charity after the latter pulled out.
Instead, Lo Celso’s favourite was Angel Di Maria, a fellow canalla and yet another left-footer. Rosario, the birthplace of Che Guevara, does like a lefty.
It has produced many of the game’s great thinkers too. Marcelo Bielsa was born in the city. It was there that he influenced Mauricio Pochettino.
“This area has something special,” Pochettino tells Sky Sports. “I don’t know if it is in water or if it is the steak or the milk but it is amazing.”
Before Pochettino and Bielsa, there was Cesar Luis Menotti. But before Menotti, Rosario often found itself ignored. It was his actions as Argentina manager that paved the way for Messi, Lo Celso and the rest to rise up.
“It was an idea that had gone round and round my head ever since I was a kid,” Menotti would later explain. “I felt it was a revenge against all the football injustices I had lived through. I was tired of seeing the great footballers of Rosario not given an opportunity. Now, for the first time, players from the provinces had a chance.”
Menotti remains an icon in Argentina, the great romantic who coached the country to their first-ever World Cup win in the summer of 1978. But forget romance, his thinking here was entirely logical. If Argentina was to maximise its resources, it had to look beyond Buenos Aires. He divided the country into six zones and gave opportunities to all.
As it turned out, Newell’s Old Boys midfielder Americo Gallego was the only player from either of the two great clubs of Rosario to feature in the World Cup final win, but there wasn’t a single player from Boca Juniors either – and they were the reigning champions of South America. He challenged expectations and Rosario became a talent factory.
It is a wonder how the city was overlooked for so long. Rosario Central had won the title in 1971, becoming the first team from outside the province of Buenos Aires to be crowned as national champions. Aldo Pedro Poy’s diving header or palomita – little pigeon – saw off Newell’s in a famous semi-final. So famous that he still recreates the goal annually.
European audiences might think of Boca Juniors and River Plate as Argentina’s great football rivalry, but for all the passion in Buenos Aires, it is still possible to find pockets of calm in the place known as the Paris of South America. The prospect of a life without football is practically impossible in Rosario, as Hernan Cabrera, a journalist in the city, explains.
“Here in Rosario, football is lived like nowhere else in Argentina,” Cabrera tells Sky Sports. “Rosario is the capital of football. It is a city where football is consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it is very difficult to get away from that. There are not Boca or River fans like in other places. Here there are Newell’s fans and there are Rosario Central fans.”
Lionel Messi is a Newell’s man. But more than that, he is a product of his environment. He is a product of Rosario. Menotti once claimed that Diego Maradona could not have happened in Japan and, in much the same way, Messi happened in Rosario for a reason. Jorge Valdano, the 1986 World Cup winner, devoted his El Pais column to this theory in April.
“Growth has to take place in an environment that appreciates that specific talent,” he argued, “an environment in which football must have a cultural density. We have to say that Messi was born in Rosario because Rosario deserved a Messi. The whole city is impregnated with football. It was within the realm of possibilities for the city to give birth to a genius.”
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Valdano went on to suggest that the list of Rosario’s sons proved his point. He namechecked Menotti, Bielsa and Pochettino. He highlighted the work of Gerardo Martino and Eduardo Berizzo too. As for the great players, there was a mention for Di Maria and the strikers’ striker Gabriel Batistuta. But the final name on his list was intriguing. It was Lo Celso.
It might seem daunting for a young man barely known in the land he now plays football to be named in such company but in his homeland, Lo Celso is seen as a continuation of all who came before. When he left Rosario Central for Paris Saint-Germain, the selling club called it ‘one of the most important transfers in the club’s history’ and it wasn’t just the money.
Lo Celso’s emergence confirms the stories that Rosario likes to tell itself. The home of genius. The home of the genius. When Messi and Lo Celso were finally put in the same Argentina team for a friendly against Nicaragua in the summer, there was joy as the two combined effortlessly. Messi looked for Lo Celso. Lo Celso looked for Messi.
The hope is that there is a bond in terms of how they see, feel and understand the game. Perhaps there is. While the city’s great coaches shared ideas, its great players have shared an upbringing on the potreros – the dusty, sun-baked pitches where their skills were honed.
Javier Graziottin Alonso is a coach at the Leo Messi Foundation in Rosario and has seen this up close. “There are many reasons for our success,” he tells Sky Sports. “There is a diverse genetic mix here. But chief among the reasons are the vacant lots and small fields where boys compete and learn about the game. This is then perfected in the soccer schools.”
In the case of Messi and Lo Celso, this is a literal truth.
The school of Griffa
To understand just how many of the key figures in Rosarian football are interlinked, it is necessary to understand the role of Jorge Griffa. In a sense, he represents the start of it all. It began when Griffa “decided to go and to look for players instead of waiting for them” and that mentality has come to define Rosario, as Gabriel Cardarelli, a local journalist, explains.
“Rosario is historically characterised by its commitment to youth development,” Cardarelli tells Sky Sports. “Both of the big clubs have always focused on discovering talent in the region, looking in every little corner. Newell’s perhaps more so than any other team in Argentina because of the revolutionary and innovative work of Jorge Griffa.”
Griffa, now 83, was a player and coach at Newell’s as well as the man who revolutionised the club’s academy. Valdano, a former student, says that none of it would have been possible without him. He might even have been Menotti’s inspiration – he chose Griffa’s Newell’s reserve side to represent Argentina in regional qualifying for the 1976 Olympics.
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When Bielsa became the head coach at Newell’s, Griffa was his assistant, having worked together in the club’s academy, but there was more to their relationship than that. Griffa was a master, mentor and inspiration. So much so that when Bielsa funded the construction of Newell’s new academy building with his own money, it was named after Griffa.
The pair covered many miles in the car, travelling up and down the country scouring for players. The tale of Bielsa turning up at 2am at the door of Pochettino’s parents and promptly checking the teenager’s legs while he lay in bed is well known. Less mentioned is the fact that Griffa was Bielsa’s companion in that Fiat 147 car that evening.
Since then, Griffa found more fame for his role in discovering the young Messi. But even after he left for Boca Juniors – and played his part in identifying Carlos Tevez’s potential – the talent-spotter supreme was not done with Rosario. He set up the Asociacion Atletica Jorge Griffa, now run by his son, that provides coaching to youngsters in the city.
According to Griffa, the aim is “to prepare the boys so that the leap to the big club does not feel too different” and so it proved for a certain Giovani Lo Celso. He excelled at Griffa’s school, before being spotted by Alberto Pascutti in 2010, and spirited away to Rosario Central. It was the start of a journey that would take Lo Celso to Paris, Seville and London.
The first move was not straightforward as he was asked to play a deeper role than might have been expected of a player once described as having “the typical qualities of the classic No 10” by Eduardo Coudet, his coach at Rosario Central. The subsequent transfer to Real Betis revealed his abilities more clearly. But what to expect now at Tottenham?
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English football will bring its challenges, as Di Maria – the player Lo Celso has “always tried to imitate” – found out. But there are reasons to be optimistic. Firstly, his style will find a receptive audience. “He is a player who perhaps at Tottenham would fit into the historic identity of the club,” South American football expert Tim Vickery tells Sky Sports.
Indeed, this is the club of Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa, part of Menotti’s World Cup-winning squad, after all. There is Juan Foyth and Erik Lamela to help him settle too. But perhaps most significant of all is the presence of Pochettino, his new coach and a man born just a short drive south-west of Rosario in the small town of Murphy.