Sergio Aguero: The Manchester City striker's early years
Exclusive: The Manchester City striker played for pesos on wasteland near his home as a kid before he was spotted and fast-tracked to greatness. Pete Jenson speaks to those that helped him
Monday 30 April 2012
They still love Sergio Aguero at Independiente. It's partly because, as these images show, he's always been one of theirs: the nine-year-old swinging his legs on the treatment table in the home dressing room; the 15-year-old waiting to make his full debut on the touchline. But more than that, they love him because he once ran from the halfway line to score in a 4-0 win over local rivals Racing Club de Avellaneda.
That derby day glory came seven years ago. Tonight the boy who grew up playing matches for money against local opponents twice his age and size on strips of wasteland in one of the most over-populated and rundown areas of Buenos Aires can settle the most lucrative domestic football competition in the world – football still allows the meek to inherit the earth.
On the eve of the biggest title decider for almost 20 years, it is clear speaking to the radio journalist, Eduardo Gonzalez, who took him to Independiente, and the Atletico Madrid sporting director, Toni Munoz, who took him to Spain, that Aguero's hard and humble beginnings mean he won't blink tonight when the pressure builds.
Growing up in La Villa Itati – a 36-block grid of damp alleys and narrow streets where 50,000 people try to eke out a living, he shared a two-bedroom corrugated iron and concrete prefab with father Leonel, mother Adriana and six siblings.
In the first interview he gave in Madrid after signing for Atletico, he was asked how old he was when, in those difficult living conditions, he would have enjoyed the privacy of his own room. "I never have," he told the interviewer. The field of dreams adjacent to the family house was a vacant lot – one step down from a dirt pitch – but good enough, once cleared of the remnants of whatever once stood there, to host an 11-a-side game between local neighbourhoods.
Teams played for pesos with the winning side, top-scorer and best player sharing the modest pot – eight-year-old Aguero was the player every team wanted.
Gonzalez, who had his own radio show at Independiente, took it upon himself to sponsor the boy and use his influence to bring him to the club's attention.
He says: "I had an amateur team and Kun's [Aguero's nickname] father Leonel played in it. He told me his son could really play. The first time I watched him I knew he was special."
Gonzalez bought the family a home in a better part of La Villa Itati. He bought his father a car so he could work as a driver, and, most importantly, he got Aguero into Independiente's youth system.
The club signed him, aged nine, and he was soon a league champion with the reception team and then with the under-10s before being fast-tracked to play with boys two years older.
When the former Argentine international, Oscar Ruggeri, took over as coach Gonzalez made it his business to fast-track Aguero to the first team. "I bothered him constantly. He didn't know who Kun was so one day I was interviewing him for the radio and I told him. He was sceptical because he was still only 14 but I said he had to see him play and he went to watch him one Saturday and ended up putting him in the first team."
Recalling his debut, Ruggeri told the Spanish newspaper Marca: "The kid was very brazen in training. He was not afraid of any of the older players. They couldn't get anywhere near him to bring him down. But he was polite off the pitch and he listened to the older professionals. In the lunch before his debut we all watched him to see how he was reacting and he was just very calm and quiet."
On 5 July 2003, aged 15 years, one month and three days, Aguero made his debut for the club to become the youngest player ever to play professional football in Argentina, breaking the record of Diego Maradona whose daughter Giannina he would later marry.
Aguero finally established himself in the team in 2005 and in 2006 he had his best and final season with that mazy dribble from the halfway line in the local derby win that City fans will hope he can emulate tonight. Atletico Madrid agreed to pay €20m for him. The first time Miguel Angel Gil, the club's director, saw him was the day he signed him, such had been the conviction of his then Sporting Director Toni Munoz.
Munoz says: "I went to Argentina to watch him in a South American under-19s tournament and there was no question about his technical ability. He had that burst of acceleration and he was a deadly finisher."
Director Gil recalls: "When I met him and his family it was clear he came from another world, nothing like the one he was about to enter." What Gill, Munoz and Carlos Ares, the Argentine journalist, all attest to, however, is the temperament that has never been fazed by the tensions of a big game or the expectations of a big move.
"You cannot compare the pressure he was under to Leo Messi, because Messi was 12 when he first came to Spain and he had time to adapt gradually. Sergio never had that advantage – he arrived as the first-team star from day one."
On his first day in the Spanish capital, Aguero was whisked through a medical, a quick mini-tour of the city and his presentation to supporters and, with barely time for a Spanish-ham sandwich, he was put on national radio's biggest sports programme, the late night El Larguero show. Asked about his first home, he said: "It was a humble neighbourhood. It was screwed up living there but luckily my club and my representative helped us move to a better house."
Eduardo Gonzalez had given the family a first leg-up out of poverty and Independiente then moved them to another neighbourhood, still within La Villa Itati, but on a small estate of around 250 chalets. Once in Madrid his mother Adriana was taken by club staff to the suburb of Majadahonda to pick out a house for Sergio to live in with his father, aunt and uncle before she returned home to care for his brothers and sisters. Each step in Aguero's career, he has been able to improve the situation of his family.
Tonight they will all be watching. The six siblings (two of them now Independiente players), the parents, Gonzalez, with whom the family no longer communicate despite all he did for the boy at the start of his career, and the whole of Argentina. It's a national holiday, so the mid-afternoon kick-off won't prevent anyone watching both Aguero and Carlos Tevez face Manchester United.
Gonzalez is not surprised Aguero looks most at home with Carlitos alongside him. "Aguero and Tevez are cut from the same cloth," he explains. "They grew up playing the same way." And recalling the tearaway, the kid growing up with nothing, he adds: "The first time I ever had him in my office he was touching everything, lifting up the phone, touching the computer. He was a little bug. But he has become a beast of a player."
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