An eventful weekend in Argentine football some 17 years ago. Fútbol es la leche was lucky enough to be in Buenos Aires to witness it all.
Saturday July 3rd 2003
He’d watched just over an hour of insipid, end-of-season football and Oscar Ruggeri had seen enough. His Independiente side were trailing 0-1 to San Lorenzo in what was ordinarily a big game – a clásico. But this mattered little. An abject Clausura campaign from both clubs had reduced this final match to a dead rubber. The home side were auditioning some reserves while San Lorenzo had rotated with eyes firmly fixed on an upcoming Recopa Sudamericana in sunny Los Angeles. Here on a chilly Saturday night in Buenos Aires, Ruggeri — no stranger to Argentine football lore as a World Cup winner himself — decided it was time to give the people a little bit of history.
It was fairly routine for Ruggeri to dispatch Pepe Sosa, the ballboy who stood near the home bench, to tell those warming up that it was time to come on. Although this time was a little different as Sosa bounded excitedly down the sideline to tell his friend that his time had come.
“He has a baby face although the legs not so much,” observed the TyC Sports commentary duo as Ruggeri gave some final instructions, his arm around the shoulders of the young substitute in his blue tracksuit top — oversized even by the fashions of the time. “Here then, is a historic event in Argentine football. A boy who has just turned 15 making his debut in the first division.”
15 years and 34 days to be precise. 322 days younger than the previous record — held by a certain Diego Armando Maradona. Wearing number 34 on his back and coltishly taking up a position just behind the central striker was Sergio ‘El Kun‘ Agüero.
Sosa watched on intently — eager for his friend to get involved. He soon was — making a swift interception but misplacing his pass and setting San Lorenzo on a counter attack that he had to thwart himself. Agüero’s first meaningful action in the professional ranks a crude but necessary hack in central midfield.
Soon though, he was making highlights for the right reasons. A lovely dummy-and-go exposed San Lorenzo on their right flank and when the ball was eventually worked back to Agüero — played to him in-behind an 18-year-old Pablo Zabaleta — he was able to send a decent cross to the far post.
300km away in Rosario, a 16-year-old on his holidays was following the game on TV, his interest piqued by the mention of a boy a year younger than him making his professional bow. It would be a couple of years yet before the paths of Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero would meet. They teamed up for the first time in Argentina’s 2005 FIFA u20 World Cup triumph — Zabaleta lifting the trophy after Messi and Agüero had combined for the decisive goal in the final.
Back in Buenos Aires, what remained of the Saturday night crowd gave half-hearted applause as Independiente completed their season with a defeat. Agüero’s debut had been a portent of the rebuilding that needed to be done and the squad’s most valuable asset — centre-back Gaby Milito — had said his goodbyes as he was substituted late in the game. The home fans replied with a generous ovation — partly a plea to stay but mainly an acceptance that their captain was almost certainly the next departure for Europe.Embed from Getty Images
On the same night, just a few kilometres away, the team from the brewery were having a piss-up — sort of. Quilmes Atlético Club, sponsored by their namesakes and neighbours the Quilmes brewery, had secured an emotional and long-awaited promotion after a goalless second leg at Argentinos Juniors. In classic Argentine football scenes, the players — stripped to their underwear — celebrated in front of the 12,000 travelling supporters on a pitch carpeted in ticker tape. The start of the match had been held up while one poor soul with a leaf blower attempted to rediscover the grass.
“Champagne to celebrate?” “This is Quilmes Papá – beer for everyone”, chimed Diario Olé who dedicated their front cover and decidedly more Sunday edition column inches to Quilmes’ feat than their more illustrious counterparts who had played that Saturday night.
Sunday July 4th 2003
Whilst Quilmes were waking up with a headache, many in Buenos Aires were just getting ready to party. Indeed the central theme of that Sunday was who could party hardest and crow the loudest.
The previous weekend, Manuel Pellegrini’s River Plate had clinched the Clausura, having reeled in their eternal rivals, Boca Juniors, on the run-in with four straight wins. The result of their one remaining game, at home to Racing Club, was irrelevant. Nevertheless the Estadio Monumental had sold out with fans eager for the presentation and celebrations.
Boca had upped the ante in the intervening midweek — convincingly beating a Santos side that included the likes of Robinho and Diego Ribas over two legs to seal a fifth Copa Libertadores win. Returning from Brazil they announced their intentions to celebrate too — selling 45,000 tickets for a Sunday night soiree in La Bombonera. The fact that they had a fixture three hours away against Rosario Central at exactly the same time was regarded as mere trivia. The kids would go to Rosario; everyone else would be at the carnival. And it had better be bigger and brasher than whatever River had planned.Embed from Getty Images
For all the festive atmosphere in the Monumental, the game between River and Racing started on a solemn note. Beneath the firework smoke and the vast scoreboard proclaiming ‘River, Campeon‘, the players paused at kick-off in silent protest against the level of violence in Argentine society. Ten minutes later, one of the victims of that violence, River’s centre-back and captain, Leonardo Astrada, advanced into an unfamiliar attacking position and blazed a shot high and wide. Turning promptly on his heel, he warmly shook the hand of the nearby referee, removed the captain’s armband and strode off the field in tears and into retirement. Embraced by his teammates, he kissed and held aloft the famous River colours he had defended for over a decade and a half. The T-shirt he wore beneath bore the picture of his father – Rubén, kidnapped eleven days previously, alongside the message “Papá we are waiting for you”.
Astrada left the stadium immediately, returning home to continue negotiating for the release of his father having urged his colleagues not to ease up on the celebrations on his part. After a distracted 1-3 defeat, his teammates granted Astrada his wish, celebrating extravagantly with music, wigs, pyrotechnics and some feats that would likely have given the club’s insurers a few weeks of sleepless nights.Embed from Getty Images
Over the other side of town, Boca had turned La Bombonera into something that more resembled a U2 concert, with a gigantic screen hovering above a massive globe of a central stage. Various bands and DJs span through sets before the players were eventually introduced on stage one by one. Then as a group, they took that famous trophy on an obligatory lap of honour. Carlos Bianchi’s return as coach had led them once again to South America’s biggest prize, spearheaded by a 19-year-old Carlos Tevez who had been outstanding in both legs of the final.
Amid the revelry and mandatory baiting of River, it is unknown as to whether it dawned upon anyone at any stage to check in on how things were going in Rosario. The answer was very badly.
Central were taking full advantage of the shadow side that Boca had sent. Luciano Figueroa, in particular, had decided to fill his boots. An unprecedented five-goal haul propelling him to the top of the scoring charts and catching the attention of one particular Premier League club. Central’s 7-2 win a bizarre footnote in an odd weekend.
When the hangovers cleared and the ticker tape and toilet roll were finally all swept up, what would become of the protagonists of this most whimsical of weekends?
The boy from Rosario and the boy on the TV would play for their country 77 times together — dragging the Albiceleste so close to history but more often through muscle wearying disappointment. They would win Olympic gold together in Beijing in 2008 on one of their happier travels together.Embed from Getty Images
The ballboy, Pepe Sosa, would travel the world too. A constant companion who would help Agüero settle first in Madrid and eventually in Manchester.
Agüero’s captain on that first night, Gaby Milito, would be announced three days later as Real Madrid’s second summer signing. The centre back agreed to a four-year contract to join David Beckham as a new addition to Carlos Queiroz’s squad of Galacticos. Madrid’s medical staff, though, voiced concerns over the health of Milito’s right knee and the transfer was abruptly terminated. Real Zaragoza, though, took a chance and ten months later Milito capped an excellent season with a dramatic Copa del Rey win over a Real Madrid fielding Raul Bravo at centre back. He would go on to play 174 games over four seasons in Zaragoza before Barcelona came calling.Embed from Getty Images
Quilmes not only stayed in Primera but briefly thrived. Within two seasons El Cervecero (The Brewers) were mixing it with the likes of Colo-Colo, Universidad de Chile and São Paulo in the Copa Libertadores before the party ended and they sunk slowly back down the divisions.Embed from Getty Images
Leonardo Astrada would get his father back. Rubén Astrada liberated, unharmed and in good health onto the streets of Buenos Aires 16 days after his son left the Monumental in tears and a total of 27 days held captive. Astrada would soon return to River for an 18-month spell as manager, succeeding Pellegrini in January 2004. Pellegrini apparently exasperated at the break up of his squad with the likes of Andrés D’Alessandro, Martin Demichelis and Matias Lequi having departed for Europe after the title celebrations.Embed from Getty Images
Luciano Figueroa’s five goals against the superpower of South American football — albeit a Boca reserve team — tempted Birmingham City to splash out a £2.5m transfer fee for the striker. City boss Steve Bruce was enthusiastic about his new signing. “He’s someone I believe will be a terrific signing for us. He’s just broken into the full national side and, with players like Batistuta, Crespo and Lopez around, you’ve got to be pretty good to do that. In the last game of the season, he scored five against Boca Juniors, who were just pipped to the Argentine championship.”
Figueroa, though, saw just four minutes of Premier League action and the five-year contract was cancelled by mutual consent that December.
Sergio Kun Aguero: Born to Rise by Daniel Frescó contains some of the details used above especially in the Foreword by Lionel Messi