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This feature is part of A Tale of One City

Argentina is a nation that, perhaps more than any other, lives and breathes football, revelling in its many intrigues and paradoxes. That notion is no more prevalent than in the provincial city of Rosario, which sits just 300 kilometres from the capital of Buenos Aires and is synonymous with the country’s deeply ingrained passion for the beautiful game.

A modestly sized but atmospheric city, Rosario is surrounded by the meandering Paraná river, which rests before a sea of contiguous skyscrapers, all varying in size. Its density contributes to its character, and while perhaps not the most elegant of cities, there is a certain attractiveness to its industrious and ageing aesthetic.

The centre is home to Independence Park, which merges into the upmarket Boulevard Oroño, amongst which resides the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa, the stadium of one of Rosario’s two major football clubs, Newell’s Old Boys. Narrow streets and bustling cafes characterise the heart of the city, with an inescapable, inherent obsession over football lingering very much in the forefront of everyone associated with the city.

The intense and often fiercely competitive rivalry between Newell’s and the the city’s other major club, Rosario Central, provides an almost even split between the passionate people of Rosario, and has been given the name by locals of ‘Lepers vs Scoundrels’. Far from endearing but steeped in history, the derogatory titles were birthed when, over a century ago, both clubs were invited to play in a charity match in aid of a leprosy clinic. Rosario Central refused while Newell’s accepted, hence the resultant nicknames.

Animosity between the rivals doesn’t take away from the sense of almost village-like community in the city, nor does it in any way lessen the pride felt at Rosario’s significant influence on football in Argentina. Football is a part of life from an early age in the city for many, and as a result, the Rosario youth systems, and their impressive success rates, have proved the envy of others.

Gabriel Batistuta, Jorge Valdano, Mario Kempes, Néstor Sensini and Mauricio Pochettino all progressed as youngsters in the city, and it is the birthplace of the likes of Ángel Di María, Maxi Rodríguez, Mauro Icardi, Ezequiel Garay and, of course, Lionel Messi.

Then there are the coaches: none other than César Luis Menotti and Marcelo Bielsa, both innovative and unconventional nonconformists that emerged from their hometown of Rosario to challenge and pursue change in football. Even away from football, the city boasts some extraordinary characters, amongst which are the likes of revolutionary Che Guevara and famous cartoonist Roberto ‘El Negro’ Fontanarrosa.

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Such is the reserved and mannered nature of the residents of Rosario, however, there is no hint of self-importance when it comes to football. Despite the fact that this is a city can claim to have seen the formative years of some of the nation’s greats, the attitude is nothing less than understated.

Former Newell’s and Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino said in Guillem Balague’s book, Messi: “It’s different from other cities because of its unique passion for football. The area near the city is a conveyor belt of players, a football factory that produces the talents that are central to the objective of Rosario’s footballing dreams. They are what we describe around here as ‘well-fed’ youngsters with an enormous passion for football. That’s why the Rosario academy is so important and has created such great stars and an interminable list in which Lionel Messi is the icing on the cake.”

While Newell’s is largely considered to be the area’s most esteemed club, it was Rosario Central, alongside Rosario Athletic, that began the city’s irrepressible obsession with football in 1889. The arrival of football evangelist Alexander Watson Hutton, a Scottish school teacher, as well as an influx of expatriate railway workers and managers from Britain in the late 19th century, led to the formation of teams, originally in the capital of Buenos Aires.

The game, still in its developmental stages, moved to Rosario, which became the first provincial city to host a football club – or two as it turned out. Rosario Athletic were formed for the managers, while Rosario Central was predominantly for the workers. The first incarnation of what is now the Argentine Primera División was played in 1893, leaving the city of Rosario and its clubs deeply entwined as some of the most ancient in the history of the sport in the country. Newell’s were formed shortly afterwards in 1903 and became Rosario Central’s main competitor as Athletic retreated into obscurity and began to prioritise rugby.

Both Rosario Central and Newell’s were undeniably instrumental in the progression and development of Argentine football, although neither were able to consistently compete with the country’s best for some time. The top division was dominated largely by Lomas in the late 1890s, before Alumni became the dominant force after the turn of the century. Then came the emergence of the likes of Racing, as well as the eventual powerhouses of Buenos Aires clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a Rosario club was to secure a domestic title, but it had done nothing to temper the fanatic support of the often raucous locals.

That first title came in 1971, and preceding it was a monumental clash, one which would shape the rivalry between these two historic clubs and, ultimately, provide unceasing bragging rights for whoever was to be the victor. Newell’s and Rosario Central met in perhaps the most memorable Clásico Rosarino to date, played in the capital, Buenos Aires, for the semi-final of the National Championship, starved of any notable success and desperate to get the better of their neighbouring opposition.

The weather was insufferably humid, suffocating, and the tension amongst both sets of fans was unparalleled. Rosario Central had reached the final and been beaten just a year previously, but this was different, more important even.

Read  |  The story of Buenos Aires’ Superclásico

The game, as it turned out, did not match the spectacle of frenzied support, goalless and tactical until just before the 80-minute mark. But then, with 13 minutes remaining, a free-kick was awarded dangerously close to the Newell’s box. A floated delivery entered the box from the resultant set-piece and was met by the diving header of striker Aldo Poy to put Rosario Central in front and cue ecstatic celebrations in the stands.

It was the only goal of the game, and Poy’s side went on to beat a strong San Lorenzo side in the final for their maiden title. But it was the semi-final that meant more. This was a purely footballing rivalry – and still is to this day – with fans of both sides entranced by a vehement love for the game that is all the more noticeable where the derby is concerned. Such was the importance of Poy’s header in Buenos Aires that day, the goal is still recreated every year (with varying degrees of success given Poy is now 71-years-old) at the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito – Central’s stadium.

Newell’s were to eventually have their time in the sun, though. They enacted a certain level of revenge in beating Rosario Central in the 1974 National Championship final, winning their first title in the process, and would eventually become the more successful of the two clubs following Central’s decline after the 1980s. Newell’s are the club that have been associated with the bigger names than their rivals. Bielsa, whose name now represents the club’s stadium, is one of world football’s most revered and respected coaches, while both Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi were associated with the red and black shirt.

It was Bielsa who was to prove a symbol of progression at Newell’s, arriving in 1990 and beginning his journey as the tactical maverick and innovator that he is now known as. Before the arrival of the enigmatic coach, Newell’s had won two National Championships in their entire history. By the time he had left they had won two more.

Bielsa revolutionised the playing style of the club, introducing the first incarnation of Bielsista football, and in his final season, his team were defeated just once. He resigned soon after, the strain and pressure of attempting to continuously pursue his ideals with his boyhood club seemingly too much to take.

That Bielsa was born and raised in Rosario and became one of the pioneers of tactical progression in the game, appears to be no coincidence. The influence of Jorge Griffa, who became an incredibly devoted youth coach for Newell’s after retiring as a player, was crucial in Bielsa’s development. Griffa dedicated his hours to tirelessly attempting to find the next big talents in the city of Rosario, and was exceptionally talented at doing so. Even when it came to selecting assistants to work with him, of which Bielsa was one, he had a keen eye for those with ability.

Both Griffa and Bielsa spent their days scouring Rosario and its surrounding areas looking for unearthed prospects, visiting the numerous football pitches scoured across the city and exploring the working-class, low-rise communities in which the game was played almost ceaselessly.

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It was in one of these communities, La Bajada on the outskirts of Rosario, that Griffa spotted the talents of a certain Lionel Messi. While Bielsa was emerging as a coach, a young Messi was blossoming as an unprecedented talent, demonstrating a skillfulness that often bewildered his fellow children and parents alike.

Eventually joining Grandoli Football Club, a modest, unspectacular children’s team, and playing on unkempt, patchy pitches, La Pulga (The Flea) progressed until Barcelona pried him away from the Newell’s youth side whom he had joined at the age of six. In a way, it was Messi that put Rosario on the map to an extent. Before his ascendancy to become the greatest player in world football, it was a city that was largely overlooked and overshadowed by the more glamorous and notably successful Buenos Aires.

But Messi’s relatively understated rise to prominence almost encapsulates the attitude of Rosario. There is deep pride felt at the wild success of a player borne amongst Rosarinos (residents describe themselves as such as opposed to claiming to be from the province of Sante Fe), but in no way is there arrogance or a feeling of pomposity.

“Messi belongs to the city, and people adore him,” David Trevez, the president of Grandoli, told the BBC in 2010. “When he and his family are here, they are just one more family from Rosario. They haven’t forgotten our city – his brother lives here and the parents come back a lot and Messi comes here on holiday.”

That communal atmosphere has always been prevalent in Rosario, particularly in the close-knit, working class neighbourhoods in which kids are seen playing in the streets, and playing football is seen as a necessity and almost a rite of passage, not a choice.

“It takes time to create a good player, you see a lot of talent here,” Trevez said. “The kind of society you come from can make all the difference to a player. The best football player in the world started here and his first football shirt was ours.”

Messi has always viewed Rosario as his home, and his development in the city served to prove as vindication for the excellent work of its many talented youth coaches.

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While Rosario is clearly a city that views football as far more than just a game, a mere sport, neither of its two major clubs have been without troubles. Both Newell’s and Central were adversely affected by an economic crisis in the late 1990s, such was the city’s dependence on utilising its port to trade from crops taken from the vast grain fields of the region.

Then there have been the issues in the hierarchy at both clubs, some of which have even included corruption and violence. In 1994, President Eduardo López won election to take control of Newell’s, and immediately abolished polls. His corruption and criminal activity was later brought to light when he was accused of tax fraud and misappropriation of funds.

López’s reign lasted for over a decade, however, alienating many of the club’s most iconic figures and creating a worrisome and troubled atmosphere. Newell’s have since moved on from his tenure, even winning another championship title in 2013, but political issues have been a concern throughout the club’s often turbulent history.

Rosario Central, meanwhile, have declined rapidly on the pitch since their most fruitful decade of the 1970s, going as far as to drop out of the Primera División in 2010 after a relegation playoff defeat against All Boys. Before that, in 2008, President Horacio Usandizaga had threatened to kill the club’s players if they were to get relegated. The comment – which he later claimed was not entirely serious – did not go down well, such is the reputation that South American football – particularly Argentina – has garnered for elements of criminality amongst those in powerful positions.

But political and governmental concerns have never diminished the romanticism felt towards the game in Rosario. The vision of football in the city is in its most simple form, pure and unadulterated, something to cherish and feel pride towards, and not something which should cause issues of corruption. As Bielsa put it in the late 2000s, when Newell’s and Central were experiencing some of their most difficult times: “Rosario is a city gripped by passion for these two huge clubs.”

Perhaps the best representation of football in the city comes when considering Messi’s incredible rise to the summit of the global game. The Grandoli pitch where he began playing, encompassed by ageing, dilapidated tenements, overlooks Rosario’s port where ships can be seen moving downriver transporting grain. Such an image is perhaps not in fitting with the glamour Messi was to find later in life, but it is that inherent simplicity and unpretentiousness that allowed him to become the player he is today.

Industrious, old, understated – Rosario is all of those, but at its heart is a deep-rooted, historic connection with football that is as significant as it is in any city in the vast country of Argentina, and indeed the fascinating continent of South America 

By Callum Rice-Coates    @Callumrc96