Gerardo Martino's blend of international experience and small-town roots perfect for Mexico
ROSARIO, Argentina -- Draw a circle with a circumference of just a few blocks around the Jorge Cura neighborhood on the south side of Argentine city Rosario and you'll encompass most of the really important things in Gerardo "Tata" Martino's life. For a figure with a profile as international as the new Mexico coach and for someone who has worked outside of Argentina for the vast majority of the last 15 years, the 56-year-old remains inextricably linked and grounded to his barrio in Rosario.
Martino's career path has been well-publicized; from narrowly missing out on the league title with Barcelona, to consecutive Copa America final losses with the Argentina national team to winning MLS Cup in his last game in charge of Atlanta United. Up next is the challenge of getting El Tri into the top tier of international soccer and, hopefully, finally beyond the last-16 again at the next World Cup.
For all his travel and work around the globe, understanding his approach to the game goes back to his roots in Rosario. A four-hour drive inland from Buenos Aires, Argentina's second or third city (depending who you ask) sits on the banks of the Parana River and is in many ways unremarkable. Shorn of the charm and bustle of the capital, Rosario was the place where one of Argentina's Libertadores, Manuel Belgrano, first hoisted the Argentina flag in 1812. But in terms of tourism, there is not too much to see in this working port city currently in the midst of a narco-linked crime wave. But if there is one feature about Rosario that stands out and draws people in internationally, it would be football.
Newell's Old Boys and Rosario Central compete in one of world football's fiercest rivalries and neither club is ever far from the conversation. During the recent Copa Libertadores debacle that gripped Argentina and most of Latin America, in Rosario there was more concern in the newspapers about Newell's complicated relegation situation and Central's run in the Copa Argentina. Then there are the players and head coaches that have come from the city, notably Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Jorge Valdano, Cesar Luis Menotti and Marcelo Bielsa.
In among that group of footballing names from Rosario is Martino, the MLS Cup winning manager, who grew up in the city and still maintains his family home there. To really understand the affable Argentine, who doesn't tend to give too much away, head to the Jorge Cura neighborhood. Martino's primary school -- where he met his wife Angelica -- along with his secondary school, provincial sports club, current home, parents' house and his in-laws place are all found there.
In the world of football, with the media intrusion and the increasing distance of famous figures from the average fan, Martino stands out. Whereas most professional players in Rosario live in private housing estates, Martino still resides in his old neighborhood, despite having the ability to mingle with the city's elite.
"He lives in the same neighborhood in which he grew up," explained Lucas Vitantonio -- co-author of Martino biography "El Tata, Vida y Obra de Gerardo Martino" -- to ESPN FC in a city center cafe. "Obviously the house is a little nicer but it isn't a mansion, it's not in a private housing estate, where he could live comfortably in luxury."
The Martino household is opposite a 24-hour McDonald's, two doors down from a gas station and in an ordinary middle-class area. Martino's house is indeed nicer than most in the barrio, but not so much that it particularly stands out. Speak to neighbors and it is clear that Martino tries to live as normal a life as possible when back home, something he did even when he was coaching local club Newell's Old Boys and even the Argentina national team. When he isn't working, Martino can sometimes be spotted breakfasting and engaging in long chats with his football friends at the "Pan y Manteca" cafe in the center of the city, for example.
"He's always been a very family-oriented person, that's why he's never left," said local journalist Santiago Baraldi, who remembers Martino coming out to greet the media outside his house when rumors of a move to Barcelona were rampant. "He was raised there, got married there and has three kids."
Move down Av. Jorge Cura a few meters from the Martino household and head north for seven blocks and you will arrive at another pivotal place in his life: Parque de la Independencia. It is common to see Martino play football-tennis in the park with friends when he's back in Rosario, but more importantly, the park is site of Newell's Estadio Marcelo Bielsa, locally known as "El Coloso del Parque" (The Colossus of the Park).
No one has put on the red-and-black Newell's shirt more times than Martino did as a player and even if he had never managed the club, he would still be a legend for his playing exploits and winning three titles with the club he debuted for in 1980 at age 17. Martino also came close to making the 1986 World Cup team under Carlos Bilardo but is remembered as someone who didn't exert himself too much on the pitch.
"He had great technique, but he was slow," remembers Jorge Griffa, who set up Newell's Old Boys' youth academy and churned out players like Gabriel Batistuta, Maxi Rodriguez and Gabriel Heinze. "Maybe over a couple of meters he would win the position but if he had to run 10 or more meters, he didn't have the ability or the will."
In the era when Newell's used to play home games on Sunday afternoons, the theory goes that Martino played the first half of matches in the shade provided by the lone roofed stand, and then sought out that same shadow in the second half with his team kicking the other way. "That's why we used to say he was a 'lazy genius.'" said Vitantonio. That same stand now bears Martino's name and although the anecdote may be exaggerated, it is repeated so often in Rosario it is difficult to know whether it is tongue in cheek or not. But even if Martino didn't run much as a player, his sweet right foot, intelligence and playmaking ability made him a crowd favorite.
Vitantonio mentions former Argentina and Boca Juniors star Juan Roman Riquelme as a reference point to the type of player Martino was -- and he certainly had the kind of sponge-like brain to absorb ideas and influences. The three key coaching influences in Martino's career were Juan Carlos Montes, Jorge Solari and Jose Yudica, according to Vitantonio, with Bielsa completing his education towards the end of Martino's playing career. Inside the Newell's club shop, there are refrigerator magnets for sale with Martino's face on them and stickers with the quote "Nada nos pasa por casualidad" (Nothing happens to us by chance), all of it sold alongside those of Bielsa and other club legends.
It's also notable around town that in a rivalry as fierce as the Rosario derby, Martino has garnered respect from Rosario Central.
"We always respected Martino, I've played a lot of matches against him when we played and he's always been a gentleman," current Rosario Central manager and former Argentina coach Edgardo "Paton" Bauza told ESPN FC at that club's training facility. "We've always tried to maintain that posture and try to not say things about the other (team) in order to not fuel the craziness (of the rivalry)."
After he hung up his boots in 1996, Martino coached in Argentina's second division beforing moving to Paraguay in 2002, where he established himself at Libertad and Cerro Porteno -- with a brief stint back in Argentina with Colon. He then took on the challenge of the Paraguayan national team in 2007 and led it to the World Cup quarterfinals at South Africa 2010. "With the arsenal that he had, he knew that he had the human potential to achieve big things and he made us believe the dream and objective and started to fulfill it little by little," remembered former Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar, who also played at Newell's, in an interview in Asuncion.
After leaving Paraguay in 2011, an offer to manage the Colombian national team was on the table, but the pull of Newell's was too much. With Martino's hometown club in a dire situation in the relegation table, the former player turned down Colombia to return home to help rescue a club in financial disarray. What happened next was one of the most remarkable stories in Argentine soccer over the last decade. Strengthened by the return of Gabriel Heinze, Maxi Rodriguez and Ignacio Scocco, Martino's side went from battling relegation in 2012 to winning the 2013 Torneo Final title. The club also reached the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores that same year, only losing on penalties to eventual champion Atletico Mineiro.
"'Tata' is one of the best coaches in the world," current Newell's sporting director Sebastian Peratta told ESPN FC in his office inside Estadio Marcelo Bielsa, stressing that the key to the title was the union Martino managed to forge. "Argentina itself and football tend to make us all [think] we have the answers... What he achieved is that all of us supported his idea and when a club of the magnitude of Newell's aligns behind the same idea, it is difficult to stop."
Next up comes the challenge of Mexico and molding a side that can reach a World Cup quarterfinal. Unsurprisingly, you won't find many in Rosario who don't believe Martino is up to the task.