Fabricio Coloccini: My bus rides to a brighter life
Ahead of tomorrow's derby, the Newcastle captain tells Martin Hardy of his battle out of poverty, and how he's helping kids off Argentina's streets
This weekend will not begin in the North East until the first bus trundles down Barrack Road at 11.30 tomorrow morning, past the side of the Milburn Stand at St James' Park, heading for the Redheugh Bridge to cross the river Tyne. The slow procession, flanked by police motorbikes and monitored by a police helicopter, will carry around 2,000 Newcastle United fans, some of the way along the Great North Run route, to Sunderland.
Middle-aged, women who should know better, will scream foul-mouthed insults as the convoy rolls along the A1231, their children will stick two fingers up and those travelling from Tyneside will jump and gesticulate inside their transport as if their feet were on fire.
Fabricio Coloccini's story also starts on a bus trip; one neither as short nor as venomous as a 13-mile journey from St James' Park to the Stadium of Light.
Coloccini, Newcastle's Argentine captain, was sent on a bus to find a life, to find a way out of the poverty his family was falling into. Every Friday night after school he would sit on a bus for eight hours to travel from his home in Cordoba all the way to the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a 500-mile trip, to be given football coaching. On Sunday night, he would get back on his bus and sit for eight hours and travel 500 miles back home to his mother.
It was Ramon Maddoni who sent him there, to train with Argentinos Juniors. Maddoni – now chairman of the Boca Juniors youth academy – set in place the moral centre to build first a man, and then a footballer. It is reassuring to hear Coloccini say he will never let his children forget their good fortune to have a Premier League footballer as their father.
"I had both situations as a child," he says as we sit in the video room tucked away inside Newcastle's Benton training ground. "My father, Osvaldo, played football. In that period we had a good life, it was nice. When he finished, in that period we had problems. It is nice when I look back now because I have lived both; when I had and when I did not have. There was a period in my life when I didn't know if I would have a dinner. I will never forget that. It was difficult.
"I was lucky. I had a coach who reached me when I was young. When I wanted to train he would give me the money for the bus to get me back to my house. Training was 500 miles away. I went there because my mum had to work. I had to travel every weekend to play, for Ramon. After school on a Friday I would travel. On Sunday I would come back. At that age you never get tired. I was really happy. I was working at school five days to go to the bus, then eight hours, then play football and on Sunday, eight hours back, and then school for a week.
"No, no, I was not the best player then amongst my friends. It was not about being the best. I was given a chance by Ramon."
Coloccini was 11. "The year after Ramon told me, 'You have to come; if you want to be a footballer you have to come with us.' They gave me an apartment, they paid the rent. I was overwhelmed by their kindness then, and now, when I look back as an adult. It was a difficult moment, but I knew then how much he was doing for me."
From there, Coloccini's career started; from the Juniors of Argentinos to those of Boca and then to Milan, through loan spells with San Lorenzo, Alaves, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal. He signed permanently for Deportivo La Coruña and with two years left of his six-year contract, England, the Premier League and Newcastle United, a club in great crisis, called.
In 2008, at the front desk of a media room, at the far end of Newcastle's training ground, Kevin Keegan was talking about the club's new signing, an Argentine defender, who had cost £10.5m. At the back of the room, Coloccini, unable to speak English, largely ignored and standing behind club officials and journalists, tried to cut a path to the stage, to introduce himself, to show himself to the Tyneside public. In truth, it took two years to do that, by which time Newcastle had been relegated and promoted, a period in which Coloccini, like the club, struggled and then soared.
"When I came it was difficult," he says. "I didn't know the country, I didn't know the Premier League, it was hard, but the fans gave me everything to come and play my best on the pitch. After the first season I could never have pictured being back in the Premier League, being captain and being so loved by the fans.
"I came with my wife and my children. It was difficult for me but more difficult for my wife. She was at home, she didn't have friends. Every day I was at training and I would speak to the lads and made friends. She is one of the people who made a lot of things for me and sometimes I think, when I play well or I give 100 per cent on the pitch, it is because I am well at home."
It is a theme to which he constantly returns.
"I say to my kids, 'You can have nice things like holidays but you must remember to say thank you because we can have dinner; that is more important'."
For three weeks every summer those two children, Octavia, aged eight ("she has a Geordie accent"), and Thiago, five, play with those who spend their days on the streets of Cordoba. Coloccini bought land and built a refuge for the children he would pass as he drove home who were standing around on street corners.
"They don't live on the streets but maybe their parents are out at work all day so they spend time there," he says. "They didn't play football, they were drinking beer. I gave to them the possibility to come to this place and play football, play hockey. They have tea-time, they can enjoy life. It is to take people out of the streets. It is not good to spend too much time there.
"It was a field and we made a building, not too big but with access for wheelchairs – and they can move properly in the club as well. The kids can come and play, and they can dance and they can play football and hockey. It is for children from between five to 13, 14, 15; then the older children, when they go, sometimes come back to help.
"How do I feel when that happens? It is good for them. I feel proud, it is nice and they learn to help each other. We try to help them.
"I am there for two or three weeks every summer. I turn up, I play football with them. It is not to win, it is to have fun, it is to enjoy life.
"It is very important to give these children a chance. Sometimes, you know, when you walk down the street, they are on the corner, and I say come to Mama Silvia [the name of his foundation] and you can make friends. They know who I am. They come, they jump in the car, we go and play football.
"It is so special to watch children like that enjoying themselves. I called my foundation Mama Silvia because Mama was my mother and my mother always tried to help and she was called Silvia. She always gave to other people, she was always thinking of others. It is dedicated to her."
Coloccini has had his own awards as well. He was sitting in a dressing room at the Newcastle training ground in May when Steve Harper, the long-serving Newcastle goalkeeper, tapped him on the leg. "Can I have a word please, Colo?" he asked. "I went outside. I did not know what he was going to say. I went with Jonas [Gutierrez]. Harps said to me, 'Colo, you're in the PFA team of the year. Congratulations.' I was very proud.
"I had to fight very hard for this life. I had to fight for my career. I think it is why I have succeeded at Newcastle – not just at Newcastle, but in football."
The Tyneside buses will have been parked into a makeshift wall alongside the car park outside the main entrance to the Stadium of Light to keep Newcastle and Sunderland fans apart long before Coloccini leads his team out of the away dressing room into the tunnel, from where a bear pit will await.
He says there will be no nerves. "We separate the emotion," he says. "We have to do it right. If you go into the atmosphere then, like the last game, you will not play your game. It's a massive match. For us it is the biggest in the Premier League – for the fans, for us as well and for the city.
"Every time the fans come up to me in the shops they say we have to win, you must beat Sunderland. My relationship with the Newcastle fans is so special. I always say the same. We have our home and then we have this home, in the football club, and they show us what it means."
He will not need a reminder tomorrow. But he will get one.
My other life
When I'm not playing football, I like to play padel, it's a racket sport, a bit like tennis, but you play it on a court with walls and you play off the wall, rather than over a net. I used to play a lot of it in Spain and Argentina and when we went to Tenerife as a squad we played it a bit. Unfortunately there are not many places to play it in England but I make sure I play it whenever I go home to Argentina."
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