With a tortured lilt, in 1945 Enrique Campos first sang a tale of a boy whose life is made by an unexpected call up to his club’s first team. As so many tangos have, El Sueño del Pibe permeated into the Argentinian consciousness creating a shared dream where maybe, just maybe, fútbol can lead to salvation.
We have seen Carlos Tevez and Diego Maradona fulfill it, carrying themselves and their families out of poverty. But now, as the Argentinian league wilts under financial stress, the dream withers away.
“It’s a beautiful dream … it’s just not true,” said Sebastián Blanco, the Portland Timbers number 10.
Argentina’s economy is in freefall. As of September 2019, Argentina’s currency registered a more than 50% inflation rate in the last year, a record in the last 29 years. The peso is fluctuating around 61 pesos to the US dollar, officially. This means, one Argentinian peso is valued at under a tenth of an American quarter.
The jarring reality of the country’s economic crisis has made a stable landing ground of the MLS, a new paradise for Argentinian footballers to settle and expand their careers. This year, they were the most represented foreign nationality in the league other than Canadians, according to MLS data. Mexican players, it may surprise, were in the single digits.
“More than three years ago it would have been unthinkable for an Argentinian to come to the MLS,” said Blanco.
After a four-year spell in Europe between Metalist Kharkiv and West Bromwich Albion, Blanco returned to the team he has always supported. He ran the midfield for a San Lorenzo squad that won the Supercopa Argentina, their first hardware in over two years, and missed out on the domestic league title by just three points. Still, just after his 29th birthday, he landed in Portland.
It wasn’t his first choice, though. He eyed a possible return to Europe and friends in Buenos Aires called him “crazy” for considering a “retirement league”. He was too young and too in form. But now married and with his first daughter on the way, Blanco felt his calculus was different. A conversation with Diego Valeri, already a Timbers vet, convinced him.
“You’re going to enjoy your profession, Diego told me,” said Blanco.
He’d be able to just play without external pressures: no threat of violence, top quality infrastructure and most importantly, consistent paychecks. It’s no secret that South American teams often struggle to pay their players on time.
The top clubs back home guarantee contracts and many times in dollars, but the ever widening gap in the exchange rate makes them harder to fulfill.
“It gets complicated when you have players with wages in $600,000 and $700,000 range, when we brought them the dollar was at 22,” Boca Juniors president Daniel Angelici said.
The MLS operates as a single-entity meaning the league employs the players, coaches, trainers and other staff, guarantees and pays all salaries biweekly.
Miguel Almirón wrote about having to support his family on a couple of hundred dollars a month while waiting sometimes three or four months to be paid while at Cerro Porteño in Paraguay.
“It’s not the family’s fault. I don’t want to go home and say we’ll have to wait two months for a salary,” said Blanco.
He never had any issues at San Lorenzo and never wanted on, he said. His whole family supports the Pope Francis’ favorite club. His contract was nearly fulfilled in its entirety just before signing for Portland, Blanco said and explained that filing a formal complaint through the players union could make you “look like a traitor” to your club, risking your relationships and career there.
“Budgets [in the MLS] are like puzzles, every cent is so valuable and they can’t miss a single one,’’ he said.
It was unlikely until recently for a players in their teens to leave the top five clubs – River Plate and Boca Juniors, Independiente, Racing Club, San Lorenzo. Carlos Tevez only made it to West Ham aged 22 in 2006, for example. But, the climbing exchange rate has ravaged the Argentinian leagues development farms, too. And teams need to offload green talent for a quick buck to make up for costs, the MLS is happy to receive them.
The league’s view of players worth signing has taken a “180-degree turn”, said Alfonso Mondelo, the leagues technical director of competition, forgoing names for promising, young talent.
“If you want to win a championship you have to have an Argentinian player,” he said. Since its introduction the designated player rule has been used on Argentinians more than any other country, but they’re becoming easier to pick up as opposed to Mexican players who “are paid well at home”, Mondelo was frank in saying.
Recently, a few young forwards have been signed as designated players: Ezequiel Barco (20) for Atlanta United, Milton Valenzuela (21) for Columbus Crew and Matías Pellegrini became the first for Inter Miami CF, still 19 and having only 23 appearances for Estudiantes de la Plata.
For Valentin Castellanos, coming to NYC FC was a chance to prove himself where Argentinian teams had not given him the space. His fresh call up to the Argentinian U-23 squad last month proves there’s room to grow without disappearing in the US.
“If it’s money you’re after you should get into the gambling business” said the NYC FC midfielder. Players don’t only play for the money, he insisted.
Pep Guardiola has been seen in the box seats at Yankee Stadium. Castellanos noticed. After a few failed trials at River Plate he signed for Universidad de Chile, where he debuted in 2016, and then spent two years at Torque, the Uruguayan club owned by City Football Group.
“Maybe only playing for River or Boca can give you the level of connections NYC FC provides,” said Castellanos, who hopes to rocket off to Europe one day.
Argentina votes for a new president on Sunday. The downturn is the key issue for voters. It’s unclear whether anyone can help stabilize Argentina’s economy, or at least stop the bleeding. Only time will tell what it will mean for the country’s best exports.
The Guardian Sport