Rojo reaping rewards of keeping the faith

Argentina's defender Marcos Rojo celebrates

Etched on the Argentina flag printed on the left shinpad of Marcos Rojo at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ were the words “El que abandona no tiene premio” (There are no prizes awarded for giving up). It is a motto that neatly sums up a hard-working and humble defender who, having cut his teeth on a little pitch in a disadvantaged area of La Plata, continued to go to training on his bicycle even after turning professional for local side Estudiantes de La Plata.

It was just five years ago that Rojo was still living with his family in a modest wooden abode, yet the versatile 24-year-old never thought about giving up on his dream – a level of persistence that has since led to an influential role in La Albiceleste’s run to the Final of Brazil 2014 and a subsequent big-money move to Manchester United. Such a development must taste even sweeter given the criticism directed towards the alleged defensive frailties of Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina in the build-up to the World Cup, with Rojo one of those most under fire.

The experienced coach’s support never wavered, however, perhaps unsurprisingly when you consider that, though Marquitos made his first-team debut for Estudiantes aged 18 under Roberto Sensini, it was under Sabella the following year that Rojo began earning regular playing time. Struggling to fill the left wing-back role in his 5-3-2 formation, the supremo wisely chose to turn to Los Pincharratas’ youth system for a solution.

And despite Rojo being primarily used as a central defender during his rise up Estudiantes’ junior ranks, Sabella felt he had the right ingredients to also make the left flank his own. “When I was very little I would play on the left side of midfield too,” explained Rojo. “I used to enjoy getting forward and finishing off moves.”

Putting family first
Having played his part in helping El Pincha triumph in the Copa Libertadores in 2009, Rojo used his prize money to buy his family their first solidly constructed house, a lifelong dream come true. “Why don’t you have a car yet?” experienced Estudiantes midfielder Rodrigo Brana had asked a cycling Rojo, when the pair crossed paths on the way to training a few months before that Copa win. “Because I’ve not got a house yet either,” was Rojo’s memorable riposte.

The first son of Marcos Alberto, nowadays still working as a lorry driver, and Carina, a former household help and dressmaker – the latter skill acquired in order to make clothes for her five children, had only one goal in mind: to save enough money to buy a proper home for his family. The dream achieved, his impressive rise continued: Rojo playing the full extra-time period of Estudiantes’ narrow FIFA Club World Cup final defeat versus Barcelona in December 2009, during which he impressively shackled Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Soon one of the first names on the Estudiantes’ team-sheet, next up for the Rojo-Sabella tandem came victory in the Argentinian Apertura 2010, the left-footer underlining his all-round ability by also weighing in with vital goals. At the age of just 20 came the opportunity of a move abroad, Rojo left his beloved El Pincha – whose every game he still watches wherever he may be – to sign on the dotted line for Spartak Moscow.

I did feel that my place was being questioned, there was an awful lot said about me, but I always believed in myself.

Though handed frequent first-team opportunities, the switch eventually turned sour due to a disagreement with coach Valeri Karpin. Selected to represent Argentina at the Copa America 2011, Karpin asked him not to go, whereupon Rojo went anyway – thus meaning he would barely play for Spartak again until Sporting Lisbon handed him an escape route in 2012.

It was around the same time that Sabella took up the Argentina reins, soon installing Rojo as his favoured left-back despite the player having returned to central defence at Sporting. Even after appearing a total of ten times in qualifying, as La Albiceleste impressed on the way to clinching a place in Brazil, fans and media at large appeared unable to fathom Sabella’s depth of faith in him.

In the midst of the worst spell of criticism, Rojo had ‘Pride’ and ‘Glory’ tattooed onto his quads, and ordered the aforementioned shinpads. “I did feel that my place was being questioned, there was an awful lot said about me, but I always believed in myself,” he said. “I knew that if I kept putting in the hard work then everything would turn out all right.”  

‘Rojo is greater than Pele’
In Argentina’s World Cup opener versus Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was his flick-on that led to Sead Kolasinac putting through his own net for La Albiceleste’s first goal, while he also made a spectacular clearance later in the game. His name running wild on social media sites in Argentina, partly in mocking disbelief and partly admiration, it was the start of a love affair between the player and fans.

Strong and aggressive in the tackle, a powerful aerial presence in both areas, comfortable bringing the ball out and willing to push forward into attack – Rojo’s World Cup was taking fine shape. Scorer of a goal with his knee against Nigeria in the team’s final group game, the strike capped a fine first phase for the defender – cue the media and social networks again being awash with his name.

There was even a version of the famous song Brasil, decime qué se siente *(Brazil, tell me how it feels) dedicated entirely to him, the last line a remarkable turnaround from the pre-tournament vitriol: “A Marquitos vas a ver, la Copa nos va a traer, Marcos Rojo es más grande que Pelé” (Just wait and see, *Marquitos will bring us back the World Cup. Marcos Rojo is greater than Pele).

Ruled out of the quarter-final tie versus Belgium due to suspension, an absence that had his legions of new fans fearing the worst, come the semi-final against the Netherlands, Rojo not only marked Arjen Robben out of the game but also found time to nutmeg the Dutch superstar, much to the delight of Albicelestes everywhere. And after the Final against Germany, Rojo ended the tournament as the only Argentinian in the top ten of the Castrol Index – as well as being selected in the team of the tournament.

Finally awarded a UK work permit, Rojo should shortly make his competitive debut for Manchester United, for whom he was signed on the direct request of the Red Devils’ new boss Louis van Gaal. After seeing him up close during the aforementioned semi at Brazil 2014, the Dutch strategist clearly liked what he saw.

“I’ve not been able to go to Old Trafford yet, but I’m desperate to get out on that pitch and play,” said Rojo. And though finding himself in this situation would have been virtually inconceivable as a young lad playing on the La Manito de Dios pitch, in La Plata’s El Triunfo neighbourhood, Marcos Rojo never gives up. The prizes, therefore, have kept on coming…

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