Parrillas, piranhas and Lionel Messi

Rosario is home to Argentina’s fiercest fish, fieriest derby and finest steaks. It also produced Lionel Messi. Ruth Jarvis visits his favourite restaurant and checks out a long-running exhibition dedicated to the history of the local game and its cross-city rivalry.

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The story is still told in his home town of Rosario, Argentina. Lionel Messi’s prodigious talent was first recognised when, at the age of four, he was called into a game played by older boys purely to make up the numbers. With his father Jorge as coach, young Leo was slotted in on the wing because it would be easier to take him off should he break down in tears. This, as it turns out, was not going to be necessary, then or ever.

Messi’s talents would likely have been recognised anywhere in the world but Rosario has a long history of fostering the beautiful game and its players. It became a crucible for the development of Argentine football in the early 20th century, when a steamship called The Englishman brought over railway engineers and labourers from Britain – and with them the beautiful game. One of Rosario’s two main clubs still has an English-language name – Newell’s Old Boys – and the other, Rosario Central, started life as Central Argentine Railway Athletic Club.

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Rosario’s pulse still pounds to the rhythm of football and its identity as a soccer city is evident from the moment you step off the bus – or even before, with roadside signs daubed and over-daubed in the local colours: red and black for Newell’s, blue and yellow for Central. You’ll see the same territorial markers everywhere, along with streetside souvenir stalls and televisions tuned to ESPN wherever there are bums on seats. Passions run high, and not always in a good way. The day of the city derby, the Clásico Rosarino, some city bus routes are suspended because of the simmering violence between the two camps of supporters. The first Clásico of 2013 was cancelled because of riots. Football is a matter of life and death here, and not just for the fans. In 2008 the president of Rosario Central famously threatened to kill the players if the team was relegated.

Visiting on a non game-day, this is hard to believe. Rosario is an elegant and eminently civilised town whose fortunes were built on its location on the broad Paraná river. Its port disgorged the agricultural output of Argentina´s fecund Pampas to the world. Three hundred kilometres north-west of Buenos Aires, it is considered by many to be Argentina’s second city, and has that feeling of prosperous security common to other major, but non-capital cities: Barcelona and Valencia in Spain spring to mind. Which might explain why Lionel Messi and Mario Kempes, Rosario’s other world-class footballing export a generation earlier, settled in so well at those two clubs.

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Kempes, a forward of notable physical and technical beauty, was the leading scorer of the 1978 World Cup. Fired by a home crowd at Estadio Gigante de Arroyito, where Argentina played their second-round matches, he spearheaded the nation’s drive to the final. This included a brace in the infamous 6-0 win over Peru, one of the most controversial matches in World Cup history.

The riverside Estadio Gigante remains the home ground of Central: a handsome concrete double-decker that from the outside is barely visible apart from its blue concrete floodlights and the neighbourhood’s ubiquitous blue-and-yellow paint. Newell’s play at Estadio Marcelo Bielsa, within Parque de la Independencia in the centre of the city, landscaped 19th-century gardens with a genteel atmosphere rudely interrupted by the unlovely stadium, easier to appreciate from inside where banked stands on two sides generate a cauldron of atmosphere.

Parque de la Independencia is one of Rosario’s main tourist destinations, with its attractive landscaping, boating lake and museums, including the Museo de la Ciudad, which until mid-2014 is hosting the Ciudad del Fútbol www.laciudaddelfutbol.com.ar exhibition. Four rooms tell the story of the game’s local development, from British railwaymen to Messi – note the six-year-old Leo’s registration certificate as a footballer.

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But the jewel in Rosario’s crown is the riverfront, the Costanera. Strung along a 13km stretch are parks and gardens, chic restaurants and bars, lidos and river beaches, fishing piers and rowing clubs. Swimmers should beware – in December 2013 swarms of piranhas attacked bathers here and made news around the world. On land, look out for monuments and murals dedicated to the city’s other famous son, Ché Guevara – a Rosario Central fan.

Argentina’s defining cuisine is the asado: meats barbecued on a parrilla grill. Parrillas are ubiquitous but in Rosario La Estancia is the one the
others have to beat. Satisfied diners include Señor Messi, a visitor on several occasions, as the photos in the foyer attest. There isn’t a bar in town without a TV perma-tuned to a game, but for a blue-blood football pedigree, try the Sunderland Bar, serving pints to punters since the 1930s.

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