- The first overseas player to live in La Masia
- Scored two goals to help take Argentina to the semis
- "Comparisons with Messi are unreal," says the No9
He crossed the Atlantic to try his luck at La Masia. Barcelona took him on, and he is a left-footed Argentinian forward. It is easy and inviting to draw parallels with a certain Lionel Messi, yet Santiago Rufino is his own person and neatly sidesteps our attempts to engage him on the similarities.
"Comparisons don’t bother me, but I don’t buy into them because they’re not real," an exhausted but happy Rufino told FIFA.com. "You can’t compare me to Messi because our backgrounds are totally different. As is the sport that we play! I’ll let people say what they’ll say and leave it at that."
Argentina beat Panama 12-2 to take them to the semi-finals of the Youth Olympic Futsal Tournament Buenos Aires 2018. The hosts needed to win by a margin of six goals in order to qualify and ended up winning by ten – albeit after finding it tough early on.
Eighteen-year-old Rufino learnt his trade at one of Buenos Aires's most reputable futsal clubs, Club Social y Deportivo Pinocho. He missed the first match of the tournament due to an elbow injury but came back to score twice in a game that was a real treat for watching fans.
"I’ve never experienced anything like this," admitted Rufino. "I’ve never taken part in an Olympic Games, nor played in front of such large numbers of people. The supporters are amazing. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I just want to enjoy it as much as I can."
The Olympic Games, for which Rufino and the rest of his team-mates have spent two years preparing, have coincided with a watershed moment in his career. In the summer he trained with the Barcelona futsal first team and featured briefly in some friendlies, although he is mainly part of the Barcelona Lassa B squad, the club’s youth team that play in the Spanish second division.
In December last year, Rufino received a phone call. It was Jordi Torras on the line, the former captain of the Spanish national team and current head of youth development at Barcelona, inviting him for a trial. The youngster impressed as a left-footed right-winger and was taken on by the club. He joined three months ago but under the condition that he would be given time off to head home to compete at Buenos Aires 2018.
Would this tournament see him kick on as a player? "Maybe, but it's hard for me to tell," Rufino commented. "I think I’m the same player I’ve always been. I’ve changed some small elements in how I play to become a more mature and consistent player. I don’t think I’m making the same mistakes in this regard."
Argentina face Brazil in the semi-finals, an extremely tough fixture for the hosts in which they will be hoping to see the same Rufino that enchanted Barcelona coaches during his trial there. Rufino is downplaying the significance of a match against Brazil and staying rational, noting that "they’re just another opponent". He admitted that "perhaps players are more fired-up to play in this fixture because of the history, but at the end of the day it’s a semi-final and we’d want to win it regardless of who we were facing."