The exhausted players collapse to the ground as the whistle blows to signal the end of training. Another Tuesday morning session packed with speed, intensity and pressure has taken its toll. But for the youth of Boca Juniors, this is not unfamiliar territory.
Since learning how to kick a ball, almost every boy’s ambition in Argentina is to become a professional footballer. Yet, the chance of playing for the sheer enjoyment and love of the game is, unfortunately, not a reality for these boys. The truth is that many players grow up under intense pressure and expectation from parents seeking a salvation.
The vast majority of these young boys come from under privileged areas or ‘villas’ in Argentina and offer a poor family their only hope of a better life.
It is no surprise then to hear of some players yielding to this unfair pressure, while the lucky few who make the grade often find the transformation, from nothing to everything, hard to handle.
Carlos Tevez is one player who grew up in rough conditions. The Manchester City star earned the nickname ‘El Apache’ from his time living in Barrio Ejército de los Andes (Fuerte Apache) – a poor and often very dangerous area just outside the capital Buenos Aires.
After impressing at Boca and then in Brazil, Tevez moved to England and has captivated supporters ever since with his bullish yet majestic style of play. Last season though, he found himself in troubled waters following two unsavoury incidents.
The striker was accused of disrespecting authority following his refusal to play against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League, and was further condemned for holding up a ‘RIP Fergie’ banner, aimed at former boss Sir Alex Ferguson, during Manchester City’s Premier League victory parade.
Incidents not dissimilar to these ones also tainted the great Diego Maradona’s career in Europe and comparisons have often been drawn between the two – not only for their physical stature and abilities on the field but also their underprivileged boyhoods and seemingly blasé attitudes towards authority.
But are these controversies a case of coincidence or does the problem lie within the cultural makeup of Argentine football?
Certainly the life of an average Argentine boy differs wildly to that of an English youngster. Overzealous parents and coaches have at times placed unnecessary pressure on youngsters in England; nevertheless the general reason for playing football is for enjoyment.
For young children living in poor neighbourhoods in Argentina, the pressure to reach stardom and lift the family out of poverty leaves little room for enjoyment.
Whilst there is no proof that the controversies surrounding Tevez are a result of cultural differences and his upbringing, those running Boca’s youth setup are fully aware of the issue and concede that there is a cultural gap which needs to be bridged for future generations.
General Manager Lucas Labbad said: “We think it is difficult for a player to adapt to a new culture, especially at the age at which they leave. The footballers will leave before adolescence so it is difficult, and at this moment it is like there is an explosion.
“The cultures are different. Although we come from Europe and we originate from Europe, there are differences within the European culture, because Argentina has Latin roots and England is Anglo-Saxon. This makes our cultures different, and it takes a lot of adaption.
“Carlos is a player who has won everything, everywhere he has been. When he was 16-17 he had won everything. He is a person who wants to win in his life.
“So I think that the change in cultures at his age and his development was like an explosion and we couldn’t control it as we would have liked to.
“It is our new mission to work harder so that no player has these problems. I know that from where they come from it is quite difficult to cope with success when it comes along, and to maintain success is even more difficult.”
General coordinator of youth football and former Boca player Jorge Raffo is leading from the front with the new approach. Having spent time in Europe and US training youngsters he understands better than most how important it is to integrate socially into a new culture.
“In Argentina you play for life, you don’t play to enjoy it. That is very good and very bad. It is good because you have character and personality, like Carlos Tevez. But maybe it is bad because when you don’t enjoy it you can’t have a great performance,” he said.
“Players need to be a great in all areas; medical, tactical, physical and also psychological. You don’t just need the sport condition – you also need the human condition.”
Boca is, and always has been, a hot bed for young talent, with scouts from all over the world maintaining a keen interest in the club in search of the next superstar.
In turn the vast majority of Boca players harbour a deep desire to move to Europe in order to boost their profile and also their bank account.
Raffo is determined to help players, who decide to make the move, understand what it takes to play for one of European’s elite clubs.
For this Raffo looks no further than Tevez’s clash with Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini as an example on how to respect authority.
“It’s difficult to talk about Tevez because we are so far away but I don’t think it is a very good example for young players. The respect for authority is so important,” he said.
“Tevez said he was sorry and he started to play again, I think that professional players must accept authority and the authority is the coach. And for us we take that example and talk to the players about that and it is another way for integration.”
Tevez may have riled a few people in the Premier League last season but one man who worked with the diminutive frontman during his time at Boca believes he has adapted well into the English culture.
Julio Santella, coordinator of physical trainers, said: “Carlos Tevez is an idol in England. I think that he has been able to adapt in his behaviour as a player.
“He knows his value and this has been reciprocated. He has adapted to a certain system and the people have found some qualities in him which have developed an idol status. It seems to me that the incidents that occurred just happen.”
One thing is for sure, however, and that is that Tevez’s arrival in England in 2006 was beset with controversy.
The move from Corinthians to West Ham resulted in the London outfit having to pay a hefty fine due to the involvement of a third party, Media Sports Investment, who owned the rights of Tevez.
And it is this emergence of companies dealing with players and coaches which make it even more complicated and pressurised for young players in South America according to head scout Horacio Garcia.
Garcia, who helped convince Tevez to join Boca when he was 11 year old, blames the pressure from parents and profit-seeking businessmen for the negative effect on a player’s personality.
“Tevez was a boy that lived in a poor place, but was an excellent person. He was everyone’s best friend. Sometimes people have prejudices about these places and they are wrong,” he remembered. “He helped all of his friends, he was humble and he never missed a practice.
“You can see a player in his purest form playing football. But today he has to fight against his family, because his parents put a chip in his head from a very young age, that he must be the salvation of the family. It is not good for a boy of 12, 13 or 14 years to play with that pressure.
“Entrepreneurs have also emerged who before didn’t get into youth football. Now they are looking for boys of seven or eight years old to represent. But they are not interested in training, just in business.
“There was a great teacher called Jorge Griffa, who taught me a phrase that remains in football today… ‘The Argentina football players are all good, but maybe they would be better if they were orphans.’”
In March 2012, Boca announced an alliance with Barcelona to share ideas and training methods. The scheme allows Boca access to the La Candela training centre which is run by Barcelona in Buenos Aires. In return the Catalan giants are granted first refusal regarding the players that represented the club in Argentina and that from now on shall be wearing the shirt of Boca Juniors.
Raffo, who was an integral part to the programme having worked closely with Boca president Daniel Angelici, is confident that as well as benefitting the club on the pitch, it will also go some way to taming culture shocks.
“The objective of the project was to play the same as Barcelona,” he said. “They noticed when (Lionel) Messi had problems with adaptation because he was so young and so they chose Argentina to team up with, to help any future players making the same transition. They chose Argentina because Messi was born here and he was an inspiration.”
Argentina continues to produce some of the best talent on the planet. Their abilities and technique are seldom in question and their passion will always win favour with fans around the world.
Whether Tevez’s actions last season can be put down to a clash of cultures or just a flash in the pan action it is hard to know. The coaches behind Boca’s youth team will not be taking any chances in preparing their next superstar for the life of stardom that awaits him.