Carlos Tevez and Dario Coronel had a great deal in common. They were born in the same year, grew up in the same neighbourhood and, unsurprisingly, shared a passion for football. 'Together they were dynamite' was the consensus of those who had the good fortune to see the pair linking up and hitting one-twos in the junior teams of clubs like All Boys, Santa Clara and Villa Real.
So inseparable were they that they frequently spent entire days in each other’s company. That all changed when Cabañas, as Coronel was dubbed because of his physical resemblance to then Boca Juniors player Roberto Cabanas, was selected to join the youth team of Velez Sarsfield. With Tevez not chosen to follow him there, they spent more time apart, although it was his friend’s growing attachment to a local street gang that would eventually make their separation permanent. Jettisoning a promising career in football, Coronel went the way of armed robberies and drug dealing, before reportedly taking his own life at just 17 when surrounded by police.
Coronel’s story is closely linked to that of the Barrio Ejercito de Los Andes, better known as Fuerte Apache, one of many complexes of high-rise tower blocks that fill some of the most disadvantaged areas of Buenos Aires Province. Nor was his story a sad exception. Among its streets, where some 30,000 inhabitants were squeezed, many youngsters came to a similarly tragic and unreported end. Tevez, however, made sure he was not among their number.
The man they call El Apache managed to sidestep the temptations of crime and bad company to forge a career in professional football. Currently delighting fans of Juventus in the Italian Serie A, Tevez frequently uses his background and goal celebrations to vindicate the lives of those who, with hard work and sacrifice, are struggling to extract themselves from difficult circumstance. Now in this exclusive interview with FIFA, the player talks about his roots, the story that shaped his childhood and much more.
FIFA: Carlos, having lived in various cities around the world, how do you find Turin?
Carlos Tevez: After spending eight years in Manchester I received a very warm welcome to Turin. The people are very easy-going, in contrast to other parts of Italy such as Rome or Naples, where passions run much higher. Life’s very good here and it’s where I’ve found it easiest to adapt. That’s also because of the language, which I understand a bit better. In England that was so hard for me.
Do you miss Argentina?
Yes, definitely. I’ve always missed friends and family, right from the start. Luckily I get plenty of visitors so I’m not always alone. Los pibes (my old mates) have always been there for me no matter where I’ve been. Imagine my pals from Fuerte Apache in England! I have countless stories. Every time we went out something funny happened, usually involving the language. It’s always good fun.
I have more fun kicking a ball about! When you have to play football, you do it in the knowledge that there’s a lot riding on the match, be it money, your team-mates or the feelings of the fans.
Is it difficult for someone who’s grown up in an entirely different world – in Europe, for example – to imagine what Fuerte Apache is like, and how would you describe it exactly?
It’s tough to make people understand what that life is like if they haven’t been through the same things as I or the other people from that neighbourhood have experienced. Therefore people can make of it what they want. You simply can’t get inside the heads of other people and say to them, 'Look, I went through some rough times'. It’s impossible to explain everything the streets taught me, and that was quite a lot.
Is there one particular experience that shaped your childhood?
My whole childhood was hard, so it wasn’t a matter of any individual incident. I lived in a place where drugs and murder were part of everyday life. Experiencing difficult things, even as a very young kid, means you grow up quickly. I think that enables everyone to choose their own path and not just accept the one others have taken before you, and I went my own way. I never condoned drugs or murder, and luckily I was able to make a choice.
It is said that your childhood friend Dario Coronel was every bit as talented as you, but he wasn’t lucky enough to be able to make that choice. Is that right?
I don’t think you can say that he wasn’t lucky enough to be able to choose. As I’ve said already, everyone decides for themselves what they’re going to do. He had everything he needed to be just as successful, but he chose a different path – criminality and drugs – and that ultimately meant that he is no longer with us. I truly believe that everyone chooses their own route through life, and he – and this has nothing to do with luck – chose the easier option.
Do you think about him often?
Yes! He is, or was, my best friend. We were together 24 hours a day, even though we later went to different clubs and things like that. But we were always together, all day long.
It seems that kids who grow up in poorer neighbourhoods everywhere tend to be stigmatised, even in the media. In Argentina you see it in places like Fuerte Apache, Ciudad Oculta or Villa Carlos Gardel. As someone who grew up in one such area, what’s your take on that?
I don’t think that attitude is confined to the media – everyone thinks that way. If a kid with a hood passes somewhere that has just been robbed, people put the blame on him – that’s the mentality in Argentina these days. People live in fear nowadays. Previously criminals had principles of sorts: they’d rob you but then they’d let you go. Now they’re all on drugs – you give them your belongings and they kill you anyway. Youngsters today no longer have the values I remember. In the past they would risk their necks by heading out, swiping something and then going home again – that was it. Today the lads who go stealing are all on drugs. They’re still taking a risk but in a different way. Now they’re only thinking about their own lives and not those of other people.
I thought of how we played with balls made from rags as children and things like that. The thoughts just came to me like that.
But there is also another side to those neighbourhoods, like the people who you dedicate your goal celebrations to. What can be done to help change the negative image people seem to have about places like these?
We need to show people who think like this that there are good kids in Fuerte Apache and Ciudad Oculta too, just like in every Argentinian city. Not all people are bad. I got out of there and there are others who were able to escape that situation too. It’s not easy for anyone. In fact, it’s unbelievably difficult to get out of there. But everyone’s fate is in their own hands, as I always say. You have to prove to people that we’re not all the same.
Is it true that you thought about all these things to motivate yourself on the journey to Berlin’s Olympiastadion for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ quarter-final, while looking at the Germans out on the streets?
Yes, that’s true. We were going to the stadium, and although you’re always in a reflective mood in those moments, this time it was totally different. It had never happened to me before and it hasn’t happened in the same way since. I was suddenly full of energy and said to myself, 'Today you’ve got to give your all out on the pitch because you come from a place it’s very tough to get out of'. I thought of how we played with balls made from rags as children and things like that. The thoughts just came to me like that. I had it all in my mind.
Did growing up in that environment make you the player and battler that you are today?
I don’t know if there’s a connection there. I’ve always played my way, or at least tried. I always say that whereas previously I played with the ball, now I play football, and that’s something different entirely. But I don’t know whether my circumstances have made me the kind of player I am. It’s possible.
And which do you enjoy more: playing football or having a kickabout?
I have more fun kicking a ball about! When I play football it’s my job, but when you have a kickabout you have fun and play with your friends; there’s no pressure. When you have to play football, you do it in the knowledge that there’s a lot riding on the match, be it money, your team-mates or the feelings of the fans. There’s a lot of pressure behind it.
You wear the No10 shirt that was previously used by Juventus legends like Michel Platini and Alessandro Del Piero. Does that weigh heavily?
I personally don’t feel that it is. Although it’s important to me, I don’t pile any additional pressure on myself when I pull on a shirt that so many Juve idols have worn before me. From the start, I haven’t pressured myself to feel worthy of the No10 jersey. You’d just go mad and be unable to do your job properly otherwise.
Finally, we wanted to ask about the Copa America. You’ve had very little luck at the tournament in the past, having been on the losing side in two finals against Brazil in 2004 and 2007, and then missing the decisive penalty against Uruguay in 2011. Does that still rankle?
Yes, it’s definitely something that still pains the current generation of players. We all know that winning a trophy with the national team would be a fantastic way to round things off. It’s something that has eluded us for years, so it’s definitely unfinished business. The latest edition of the Copa America isn’t far away and we’ll have to prepare as well as we can to produce our very best.