Without a doubt, the strangest sight in the world of football this week was to be glimpsed in the Argentine city of Rosario, in an otherwise seemingly inconsequential Superliga clash involving Newell’s Old Boys.
There, on Tuesday evening, Diego Maradona received the unique, wonderfully overblown gift of a lavish leather throne when he visited with his Gimnasia team. The Argentina legend was the image of languid comfort as he watched Gimnasia stroll to a 4-0 win , prompting many Newell’s fans to ponder whether the hosts may have gone overboard with their homage of the man who graced their halls in a short, combustible spell back in 1993.
Newell’s are clearly a club which venerates its heroes. A further clue lies in the name given to their stadium, the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa, in recognition of the current Leeds boss’ wonderful time on the bench during the late 1980s and early 90s. There is one man, though, that the Lepra would love to welcome back more than any other.
For years the dream of every Newell’s player, coach and fan has been to repatriate Lionel Messi, closing the circle on a career that began in the streets of Rosario and the club’s youth system before the little wizard became a global icon. But while Maradona returned, albeit as an opponent, their hopes of seeing Messi don the red and black grow fainter with every year that rolls by.
“I don’t want to leave Barca. I dream of playing with Newell’s but I don’t know if it will happen,” the Argentina captain admitted to TyC Sports in October.
His principal reason is fundamental: having spent the best part of 20 years in Catalunya, and raising a family far from his home nation, Messi and his loved ones feel happiest across the Atlantic Ocean.
“I have a family and they come ahead of my wishes. We will have to try and convince them,” he added. “When I play with Thiago and say we are going somewhere else, he hates it. We spend a month in Argentina and he wants to go back to his friends.”
With three young sons born and raised in Barcelona, those concerns are natural for Messi. But they perhaps do not tell the whole story of why Newell’s’ wait for their prodigal son is likely to end in disappointment. For the situation of Rosario in particular and Argentina in general is also a decisive factor in keeping the Messi clan away.
Dubbed the ‘Chicago of South America’ for its erstwhile position as the centre of the Argentine meat-packing industry – the Ports of Rosario and nearby San Martin-San Lorenzo are among the continent’s biggest – Rosario also gained that name thanks to its dubious reputation for Mafia dealings. In 2019, however, it is drug trafficking and the ‘cartels’ that have dropped roots in the impoverished outer neighbourhoods of the city, including Messi’s childhood home of Grandoli, ravaging communities with narcotics and violence.
In 2018, 198 homicides were recorded in the Greater Rosario area, four times the number suffered in neighbouring Cordoba. Many of the perpetrators and victims are minors, barely 13 or 14 in some cases, gunned down from the back of motorcycles and left on the streets in a vicious circle of killings and revenge attacks.
The world of football is far from immune from such violence: over the past decade more than 10 Newell’s fans have been murdered as part of an internal battle between different factions of the club’s Barra Brava hooligans, while this very week rivals Rosario Central received a training ground visit – “on good terms”, a club source told Radio 2 – from Barras upset with recent results and who wish to see rapid improvements.
“I would have liked to play in Argentine football in general. I used to go all the time with my old man, to the stands, the terraces, it was amazing,” continued Messi to TyC . “Besides, playing one of those [Newell’s-Central] derbies must be crazy.
“It is more or less the same, as a sport, but people experience it differently, people in Argentina are crazier, not winning the derby means a lot. Here you want to win but if you lose it’s ok, over there you cannot leave your house if you lose a derby.
“The madness you see day after day carries over to football and it is a disaster. We see it in the [World Cup] qualifiers, although it is different. We had to go all over South America and it’s tough too, you can’t sleep, fans spend the whole night throwing everything at you in hotels. Libertadores games must be even worse.”
The economic toils suffered by Argentina are also discouraging. With more than 50 per cent inflation annually, poverty levels estimated to reach 40% by the end of 2019 and new, extreme restrictions on the use of foreign currency reserves following massive devaluation, Messi’s home nation is in a delicate situation to say the least, with many observers comparing it with the crisis that hit at the end of the 20th century that contributed to the youngster’s decision to leave Rosario behind.
Such problems are far from new in the country, and have posed no obstacle to other stars wishing to see out their career in their boyhood clubs. The likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, Juan Roman Riquelme, Ariel Ortega, Carlos Tevez, Gabriel Heinze, Diego and Gabriel Milito and Maxi Rodriguez have all in recent years chosen to return, sacrificing lucrative final paydays for the rough and tumble of the Primera Division.
One of the richest sportsmen on the planet, the prospect of a pay cut is unlikely to faze Messi. His decision owes to more personal matters, the terror of uprooting a young family and taking them to a place where he feels he cannot ensure their safety.
“You can get killed over a bicycle,” Messi told America TV in 2018. “There are robberies everywhere and you cannot even walk down the street because you have to watch out over whether something happens.
“I know there are a lot more problems in Argentina but safety is essential.”
Unless Argentina experiences fundamental changes in the next few years, then, Newell’s seem destined to watch their would-be hero hang up his boots without ever setting foot in the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa as a player.