Argentina’s latest treasure
Fernando Gago is the latest player to emerge from Argentinean football’s hotbed of talent. Experts predict a great footballing future for the diffident 20-year-old midfielder, who recently joined Real Madrid.
Other players may lead more extravagant lives, but Fernando Ruben Gago, who does not turn 21 until later this year, has responded to all the changes he has experienced in the last two years with surprising equanimity.
Born in Cuidadela, a town which is only separated from the Argentinean capital, Buenos Aires, by a bridge and the Avenida General Paz, Gago was still playing for the Boca Juniors youth team in December 2004, although even then there was rumored to be a highly talented midfielder in the club’s junior rank who was capable of making the leap to first division football in the every near future. All that was required was for coach Jorge “Chino” Benitez, who had worked with the club’s youth teams and was guiding the first team through a transitional period, to call him up for a tricky away match in Quilmes.
Boca were going through a sticky patch and only a few days earlier had had to contend with the departure of head coach Miguel Brindisi, who had come in to replace the great Carlos Bianchi, the architect of the club’s greates success in recent history. This prompted the board to appoint Benitez, a member of the late Juan Carlos Lorenzo’s legendary Boca side of the 1970s, which won the Copa Libertadores twice, and the Intercontinental Cup, who called up Gago for his debut. Gago made such a strong impression and his play was so outstanding, elegant and pleasing on the eye that he left no doubt in anyone’s mind, despite the fact that the record shows that Boca lost 1 – 0.
“Redondo is my idol”
Everyone started talking about the boy who played with a distinguished air that was closely reminiscent of Fernando Redondo. This was no coincidence, as Gago is a graduate of Club Parque, one of the best academies in the whole of South America, which also produced the likes of Juan Pablo Sorin, Sergio Batista and Juan Roman Riquelme, all by the hand of Ramon Maddoni, who gave Gago the nickname of “Pintita” (“Poser”) “because in many games as a teenager, you had to tell him to stop posing or preening himself,” recalls the sagacious youth coach.
“Redondo is my idol. I’m a complete fanatic of his, to the point of having a poster of him in my bedroom and videos of when he played for Real Madrid; he is my role model and I try to copy his movement. I also like Esteban Cambiasso – both have a similar playing style to me,” he says. Indeed, Gago identifies so strongly with Redondo that when representatives from Barcelona flew to Buenos Aires to explore the possibility to signing him, they were shocked that Gago had already visited Madrid, had toured the mythical Santiago Bernabeu stadium and was categorical about his intentions: “I want to play for Real Madrid.”
His father’s dead
Less than two years after his debut, Gago had already won two Argentinean league titles, to Recopa Sudamericanas and a Copa Sudamericana with Boca. When he made his first-team debut for Boca in December 2004, it was clear to many what would become of the player he replaced, Alfredo Cascini, who had already begun to look for a new team. Gago made his mark to such an extent that in a few months he was no longer an anonymous figure with short hair but had quickly created his own image, characterized by long hair, a hair band and an imposing presence in the midfield through which the play was invariably challenged.
When Alfio Basile became Boca coach in the middle of 2005, Gago’s influence on a star-studded team (Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Martin Palermo and Roberto Abbondanzieri, among others), which had already won every major honor before he arrived on the scene, transformed him into the team’s linchpin and staunch supporter of attractive football. On top of that, he was then given the opportunity to represent his country at the FIFA World Youth Championship in the Netherlands, together with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Juan Manuel Torres, Gabriel Paletta, Oscar Ustari and so many other good players, under the leadership of Francisco Ferraro.
This was a difficult time for Pintita: his father had not been well for some time and passed away shortly before the tournament in the Netherlands. Gago also did not get the chance to play his best position on one side of midfield. Perhaps he did not particularly stand out, but he still made a very useful contribution to Argentina’s winning the tournament for the fifth time.
A complete success
Gago’s first experience of international football had come in the FIFA U-17 World Championship 2003 in Finland, in which Argentina finished third. He started two games in that tournament (against Nigeria and Colombia) and took part in another three (against Australia, Costa Rica and Mexico).
Following his return to Boca and the appointment of Basile, Gago produced his best form, now a more mature player and a more established figure in the dressing room. This is no coincidence: Basile had previously coached Redondo for the Argentina team whose attractive and offensive football made them one of the favorites to win the 1994 FIFA World Cup TM in the USA. Back then; Basile gave Redondo a free role so that he could distribute the ball to his teammates from midfield.
A decade later, Gago played a similar role. It was a phenomenal success story, not just for Gago, who became a star by playing very similar football to his predecessor, but also for Boca, who won a clean sweep of trophies (with three international titles and two domestic ones). However, after racking up 15 points in five matches in the Apertura tournament, Basile returned to the national side to focus on the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa TM when he was just one game away from breaking the record for the number of consecutive victories in Argentinean football.
By this time, Gago’s opponents were familiar with his playing style and started pitting a defensive midfielder against him to limit his room for manoeuvre. During the short time in which they worked together at Boca, Basile’s successor Ricardo La Volpe tried to add goalscoring prowess to Gago’s stylish repertoire, although he has only scored one to date, a magnificent strike from more than 25 meters against Velez Sarsfield in the legendary Bombonera stadium.
However, the difficult times returned just as negotiations began between Boca and Real Madrid, who needed Gago’s footballing skills to improve the quality of their squad. Boca had enjoyed a comfortable lead in the Argentinean Apertura, but Diego Simeone’s incredible Estudiantes chased them down to tie with them on points, which led to an unprecedented play-off for the title. It was then that some sectors of the media (who were echoes by the Boca coach himself) began to suggest that Gago’s mind was on his transfer. Questions were also raised about an interview given to a Madrid television station, in which Gago spoke of his future at Real Madrid. When confronted on this issue, Gago was categorical: “I’m a Boca fan and I want to be champion here; I don’t know anything about Real Madrid, not even my mother knows anything.”
Nevertheless, the week of 10 – 17 December 2006, a mere two years after his debut, was a turbulent one for the 20-year-old. Real Madrid were waiting to present him, he lost the play-off with Boca and the board could not agree on a fee, which was eventually set at EUR 21m, of which the player waived his share when the deal appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
Speaking in a low voice and with a natural shyness, Gago commented that “It’s a dream come true for me to be at Real Madrid and share the fiels with players that I used to watch on television.” He added that he hoped “to be of use to the coach, Fabio Capello, and my team-mates and to triumph in Madrid and win a lot of titles like with Boca, although I would like to make it clear that I am no savior.”
“I don’t like the comparisons with Redondo, although I admire him and we have arranged to go out to eat in the next few days,” insists Gago, although looking at this playing style, titpaclly Argentinean appearance, the position he plays and even his looks and his face, the first thing one thinks of is Redondo who shone at Argentinos Juniors, Tenerife and Real Madrid before ending his career with AC Milan. Will Gago be his successor? Only time will tell.
Which is his best position?
When Gago made his debut in 2004, many critics asked his coach, Jorge Benitez, if it would not be better to play him “in the hole”, i.e. as a link between the midfield and the forward line. However, he continued to play in midfield, where he is most comfortable and where he stands out the most, which prompted the majority of opposing team in Argentina to man-mark him, an unusual measure considering his position.
As it happens, Gago played “in the hole” both as a youth player at Boca and in the Argentina U-17 team coached by Hugo Tocalli that played in the FIFA U-17 World Championship 2003 in Finland. “I played in that position all year. I moved a bit further forward than the other midfielders and played a bit higher up the pitch. But I think I’ve got the best vision of the five midfielders and I find it difficult playing with my back to goal, which is what you have to do when you play in the hole,” he says.
Aside from this debate, can Gago function in a star-studded Real Madrid team, in which Fabio Capello uses a system with two holding midfielders, a passer (Guti) and forwards of attacking midfielders who depend on assists to receive the ball?
For this reason, legendary coach Cesar Luis Menotti, who won the World Cup in 1978, advised him to sign for Barcelona in the event that he had the chance to move to Spain because of their more elaborate playing style, and other members of the footballing world were of the same opinion.
One thing that is clear is that Redondo was quicker and moved into more attacking positions at Tenerife and, to a lesser extent, Real Madrid, whereas Gago plays closer to the center circle and is more comfortable playing short passes. Strictly speaking, he is not a marker, but his long legs are like tentacles and he does regain possession more often than he appears to. Most importantly, he always knows how best to begin a move and usually picks out the team-mate who is in the best position.
Redondo is quick to compliment Gago on his play: “Gago has an exquisite foot. He has the makings of a great player, like Kaka or Messi. I always use the example of Kaka at AC Milan: a young player, who turned up, pulled the shirt on and played as if he was on his home turf. Also, he always knows what to do. We have the same conception of football. He always makes himself available, keeps his head up and is very good at reading the game. I like that.”