Towards the end of their careers, many modern footballing greats look to wind down their playing days in China or the United States — as well as the financial inducements, there is the pleasure of boosting the culture of football in places where the game has not been historically strong.
Daniele De Rossi has taken a different path. After spending two decades at Roma, the 36-year-old Italian midfielder has opted to cross the Atlantic and join Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors. There will be nothing new in this South American adventure, instead, De Rossi will be playing in one of the world’s most famous old stadiums: La Bombonera. Nicknamed, La Bonbonera (the chocolate box) because the stands go straight up, with one layer right on top of another, Boca’s ground is a worldwide symbol of old-style football passion.
De Rossi did not want to hang up his boots without spending some time soaking up the unique atmosphere of Argentine football. It can get out of hand, as shown by the controversy and violence that affected last year’s Copa Libertadores final between rivals River Plate and Boca, but it is also a vibrant, intoxicating experience that every football fan should get to know.
The Italian comes across as a fan, following a dream and swapping the European heatwave for the rigours of Argentina’s winter because he wants to experience the atmosphere from a privileged point of view: out on the pitch.
Daniele De Rossi lands in Argentina and is immediately swarmed by Boca Juniors fans and the media 😳 pic.twitter.com/x7UBeh3CCI
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 25, 2019
De Rossi has chosen the road less travelled by. Paradoxically, though, in some ways he will feel at home. Buenos Aires is an aggressively Italian city, peopled by the descendants of mass European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th Century. The city’s Spanish is spoken with a strong Italian intonation. Boca’s nickname (The Xeneizes) is a derivation of “Genoveses,” or those from the Italian port of Genoa.
So living in Argentina should not prove a massive culture shock for De Rossi and his family. The problems of adaptation are perhaps more likely to take place on the field.
Diego Simeone, for example, forecast that Boca’s new signing will have problems, and drew on his own experience of returning to Argentina as a veteran midfielder in 2005 after 16 years in Europe. “It’s not going to be easy for De Rossi,” he said. “He comes from an Italian culture that is very tactical. The spaces are reduced, with the lines of the team close together. In Argentine football the teams are much more open, and this is complicated for those who are not used to it. It happened to me when I came back from Spain. The spaces on the field in Argentina were much more open, and I found this very hard.”
Similar doubts were expressed a few years back when Dutch master Clarence Seedorf decided to have a late career adventure in Brazil with Botafogo.
Seedorf got round the problem with a mixture of talent, experience and sheer force of personality. He read the game wonderfully well, identifying in which part of the field he could be most effective in and adjusted his position accordingly. The action appeared to take place wherever Seedorf was, and he appeared to be enjoying himself immensely, so he perhaps regrets the decision to retire when the call suddenly came to go and coach AC Milan.
Will a World Cup winner like De Rossi have a similar impact? He has clearly not come for an extended holiday; the move was set up by Boca director and former centre-back Nicolas Burdisso, a former teammate of De Rossi at Roma.
In addition to the matchday experience, Burdisso has sold De Rossi on the quality of the club’s structure. Initially it was thought that De Rossi’s contract would only take him up to the end of the year, but it seems that he has signed on until 2021.
That should be plenty of time to create history and make some memories that he can tell his grandchildren.