Daniele De Rossi came to Buenos Aires to follow a dream. He was 36 and had a fine career behind him. He could have retired. He could have opted for a sinecure in the Middle East or China. He could have gone into coaching or television punditry. But instead, having spent his entire senior career at Roma, he signed for Boca Juniors.
Things haven’t gone according to plan, however. A persistent hamstring injury has restricted him to 334 minutes of football since arriving in July. De Rossi was on the bench for Tuesday’s Copa Libertadores semi-final against River Plate but he did not come on as Boca won 1-0 and went out 2-1 on aggregate. His presence seemed less about him potentially playing than about trying to use his experience to calm others and perhaps even letting him feel a superclásico close up.
What is clear is that this is not some ego trip for De Rossi and nor has he come for the money. When he arrived in Buenos Aires after a 13-hour flight, he headed immediately to Boca’s base and trained with the rest of the squad that afternoon. The next day, he turned up at 6am, before anybody else, and put in an order for 100 Boca shirts so he could distribute them among his friends and family.
His reasons for feeling such affection for Boca are not entirely clear. It is a club with historical links to Italy – one of their nicknames is Los Xeneizes, the Genovese – but De Rossi’s desire to play for them seems linked more to his respect for Boca’s great icon of the past 30 years, Juan Román Riquelme. He is part of a WhatsApp group with friends whose sole topic of discussion is midfielders; the group’s avatar is Riquelme.
The danger when such an obvious high-class player arrives is that he might dominate the dressing room or disdain his teammates, but others at the club have been struck by De Rossi’s humility and his commitment in training. His Spanish is decent other than when the talk switches to tactics, when he has to rely on the translation skills of Carlos Tevez, Mauro Zárate and Lisandro López.
Perhaps it is down to his lack of pitch time but the most striking aspect of De Rossi’s spell in Argentina is how few ripples he has made. He has done one television interview, and that from the side of the training pitch rather than anything longer and more formal in a studio, and he seems rarely to leave his hotel in the redeveloped waterfront area of Puerto Madero, where he lives alone after his wife and children decided to remain in Rome. The only comment anybody can remember him making about Buenos Aires is to ask why there are so many street protests.
De Rossi is highly unusual. He is one of four Europeans playing in the Argentina top-flight, but the other three – José Mauri (Italy), Norberto Briasco (Armenia) and Dylan Gissi (Switzerland) – have Argentinian parents, with the first two being born in Argentina. The first European with no such heritage to sign for an Argentinian club since the Hungarian Ferenc Sas joined Boca in 1938, De Rossi has 117 caps. He was a mainstay of Italy for years.
The only player of comparable status to move to Argentina, who was not playing a sentimental final season or two for a former club, is the former France forward David Trezeguet, who played for River Plate and Newell’s Old Boys between 2012 and 2014, but his parents are Argentinian and he grew up in Buenos Aires.
That is the grim truth of globalisation, the traffic is almost all one way. In Argentina, they talk of the talent doughnut: anybody of any promise leaves when they are in their teens. Some return in their 30s but anybody who is in their 20s and is playing in the Argentinian league either is not very good or has some particular reason why they cannot travel.
Around 1,800 Argentinians are playing abroad. And that, necessarily, has an impact on the quality.
Tuesday’s superclásico, for its colour and passion, was a poor game, all free-kicks and corners. Of the impudent creativity of the No 10s, on which the myth of Argentinian football is based, the only trace was the mercurial Colombian Juan Fernando Quintero, who was on the bench for River, but in the circumstances never likely to come on.
Despite the poverty of the play – and the dilapidated state of most of the grounds and the continuing threat of violence – Argentina still has the 11th-highest average attendance of any league in the world. Love of the clubs, and perhaps love of the sense of togetherness and common identity that can still be found on the terraces, overrides all else.
Or at least that is the romantic explanation. But really, is that saying anything different to the marketing wonk who would about strong brand identification? To western European football, where the money is, where the best football is, Argentina is a market and, in as much as it exists beyond that, it is as a place of theatre, but theatre where the act is in the stand rather than the stage.
All those decades of history, the corruption and the crime, the 332 deaths detailed by Salvemos al Fútbol – the Let’s Save Football campaign – memories of a league that at one time was arguably the best in the world, reduced to this. What will survive of us is love? A tourist attraction for wealthier parts of the world? And, yes, I am aware my own presence on Tuesday, the way a video of fans I posted on social media drew thousands of approving views, is part of that dynamic.
So, too, for all his good intentions, for all that he is taking it seriously, for all it is refreshing to see a player chasing experience rather than money, is De Rossi. For what is he, really, but a tourist enjoying an end‑of-career gap year?
The Guardian Sport