ROJO: HOW THE BOY WITH NO KIT BECAME A STAR

On the occasion of his 28th birthday, we examine the determination and endeavour that have carried Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo throughout his life to date…

“Where there is suffering, there is the chance for growth,” says Argentinian football journalist Gabriel Lopez. “I think Marcos Rojo was born in the perfect conditions to be successful. When you are born into a house where a football is more important than any toy, in a neighbourhood which is all fields, where there is no chance of having a computer… that is where this footballer is made.”

United’s no.5 has come a long way, both figuratively and geographically, from the modest La Plata home where his infant years were invariably spent on the adjoining playing field. A defender in keeping with the established Argentinian prototype – tough, canny, bullish – he has made his mark with no-nonsense defending, forceful tackling and unwavering commitment: attributes which had been evident very early on in his career.

The son of an outstanding semi-pro player – Marcos Snr – a young Rojo would spend his days immersed in football. Aged just four, he entered into his first involvement in organised sport, signing up for Las Malvinas, and he swiftly made an impression. “He was different from the others,” says coach Mario Barbarino.

“At the age of four or five he understood what I was saying to him, he understood what it meant to get up and play on the pitch at the age of five. Training with the older kids, and the older kids hit you or play hard, and you pick that up and you never forget it. Running into kids who are two or three years older. At that age, that makes a difference.”

Suitably toughened by his experiences, Marcos rose to the rank of captain and, playing in midfield, scored twice in a junior league match against Estudiantes. At the age of 10, he was invited for a trial with the Primera Division club, a watershed moment in his development.

“Malvinas is a club, but more a neighbourhood club,” admits Rojo. “It is poorer, it is more about being with friends, but at Estudiantes everything was more professional, more like real football. I learned a lot there. Estudiantes was a great school.”

During his time in the club’s youth setup, Marcos also became an educational tool for his coaches. “He is an example to me as a coach,” says Alejandro Russo. “I work with young players and I can say that a boy who used to come to training on his bike when he was 12 – he used to travel 10km here and 10km back – he trained and he made his dream come true. He was a boy who came to training very happy, perhaps lacking some of the right gear, clothing, football boots, but he was always smiling and because of that his team-mates loved him.”

That was, perhaps at times, in spite of Rojo’s wholehearted commitment to training. “When he was going to challenge a forward, he would win,” says Claudio Vivas, another of his coaches. “He won because of his frame of mind; that was very important. Temperament was very important for him. As a very young boy, a winner, he wanted to win. When he went on the field he wanted to win.”

Over time, that mentality carried him to the attention of first team manager, Roberto Nestor Sensini. The 60-cap Argentina international, who spent 17 years thriving in Serie A, was impressed by an 18-year-old Rojo’s display in a training match between Estudiantes’ first team and youth team, and duly promoted him to the senior squad.

Marcos’ assimilation was made easier by immediate acceptance from his new colleagues. Aware of his background, his team-mates presented him with new boots so that he could train properly. “Straightaway, because of his charisma, he was adopted by the professional players,” recounts coach Alejandro Russo.

It just so happened that Rojo had worked his way into Estudiantes’ finest squad for almost 40 years. Since winning three successive Copa Libertadores in 1968, 1969 and 1970 – the first prompting the infamously fierce Intercontinental Cup victory over United – Los Pincharratas had won only three major honours. Managed by Alejandro Sabella and inspired by enduring midfield genius Juan Sebastian Veron, Estudiantes won the Primera Division and the Copa in Marcos’s first senior season.

“I was 19. That was incredible, indescribable,” beams Rojo. “They are memories I will have for my whole life. The day I made my debut was a very happy one because I had worked a lot, it was hard work. It is difficult in Argentina to get out of my neighbourhood. It is a poor neighbourhood.

“It is hard to get ahead. Jobs are often not very good and you have to work hard. I always liked football and I gave up everything for my dream and to see it become a reality on the day I first went onto the pitch was unique, and seeing my family there, sharing it with me, my mother and father so happy, they always used to come with me. Those are things that stay with you forever.”

More fleeting was his stay in Argentina. Within two years of ruling the continent, Rojo moved to Europe. A patchy season with Spartak Moscow preceded two years at Sporting Lisbon, but while his domestic form steadily improved, it was his dramatic rise to international prominence which precipitated a move to Old Trafford. Selected for Argentina’s 2014 World Cup squad by Sabela – now national team manager – Marcos was one of the outstanding defenders at the tournament.

“We knew him. We knew he wouldn’t let us down,” says Julian Camino, Argentina’s assistant coach. ”If Sabela handed him the shirt, he would do well. We didn’t debate it at any point. Whether he is going to play in a World Cup final or he is going to play the last-place team, he is going to play the same way: with that desire, that fortitude that he has, that always pushes him forward. With his teeth gritted, he will work until his last drop of sweat.”

United’s attention had been pricked. It was during the Reds’ pre-season tour of America that Rojo became aware of a potential move to Old Trafford. “I couldn’t believe it,” smiles the defender. “I was celebrating, jumping around the house with my girlfriend. It was incredible, for Manchester United to be interested in me, for it to be so real, it was so exciting.”

Though he was 24 when he arrived at Old Trafford, Marcos was already familiar with United, due to the influence of two of the Reds’ previous South American imports. “When I was a boy all I did was watch football and I would watch the Premier League,” he says. “I would watch Manchester United because Veron played for them and because of Diego Forlan. I always paid attention to Manchester United. They are one of the greatest teams there has ever been, so I watched every game.”

Now in his fourth season in Manchester and having made a substantial impact on proceedings, winning four trophies and registering over 100 appearances, the ceaseless grit and moxie engrained in Marcos Rojo has ensured that he has made his mark as a Red.

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