An Argentinian undercover

“Sometimes the other lads in the national team call me ‘Chile’, but they don’t give me too much stick,” said Ricardo ‘Ricky’ Rodriguez with a chuckle. However, as he insists throughout his conversation with, he feels “100 per cent Argentinian”, despite having spent over half his life on Chilean soil. “It’s been ten years now since I came over with my whole family, because my dad found work here,” the striker explained. “I’ve honestly felt very welcome right from the start and I’m very happy here, but I’ve never stopped feeling Argentinian.”

That sentiment is reflected in the Argentina badge stitched onto his training shirt, in a Buenos Aires accent still strong even after so many years away, and even in his culinary preferences. “My favourite Chilean meal? Ah, you’ve caught me out there. I’d have to say asado (grilled meat)… Argentinian-style!” he answered, laughing again. “We’ve got a grill at home and we usually get it going on Sundays. For us, having an asado is like a religion.”

And while taking part in a first FIFA competition is quite the occasion for any player, the fact this FIFA U-17 World Cup is taking place in Rodriguez’s adopted country makes it even more special. “With my family being here, it means they can come and see me play,” said ‘Ricky’. “My three older sisters are in Argentina and might come over if we make it to the knock-out stages, but everyone else will travel from Santiago to Chillan to watch our games.”

A landmark year The year 2015 is proving memorable indeed for the young Universidad Catolica front-man. In addition to his first World Cup experience, in July he was part of a group of players used for ‘sparring matches’ with Argentina’s senior team during the Copa America in Chile. “It was an incredible experience, the best I’ve ever had,” he recalled, still seeming to barely believe he spent a month training with the likes of Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria. “At first you’re all starry-eyed, but later you realise that deep down they’re just people like you. The mere thought of meeting them made us really nervous at the beginning, but we relaxed afterwards.”

Among the most vivid memories of that exciting period are a photo taken with his hero Messi, the heartbreak of yet another final defeat for La Albiceleste, and being on the receiving end of plenty of jokes from his Chilean friends. “Yes, my high-school friends did give me quite a lot of stick but, well, I’d have done the same if Argentina had won!” he admitted, with a cheeky smile.

“There’s a fierce rivalry between Chile and Argentina,” Rodriguez went on, while there will be no shortage of spice in Chillan’s Estadio Nelson Oyarzun Arenas on Wednesday, when Argentina – beaten 2-0 in their Group C opener by Mexico – face a vital clash with Germany, 4-1 winners over Australia.

“Yes, it’ll be a nice chance for revenge,” said the player, smiling once more, in reference to Germany’s defeat of Argentina in the Final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup™. “It’s true that what happens at senior level is nothing to do with us, but there will always be a rivalry with Germany. We’ve got a bone to pick with them.

“I watched the Final with my dad and some friends and we couldn’t believe it, it was the worst,” continued Rodriguez. “Most of my Chilean friends were rooting for Germany, so that day I said none of them could come round to my house. After the game I had to turn off my mobile: I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Later on, when I’d calmed down, I took the jokes on the chin a bit better!”

Bouncing back Rodriguez and Co will also have to show resilience to bounce back from said opening defeat against El Tri, a match in which Miguel Lemme’s charges had something of an off-day in front of goal. “It’s happened to us before,” said ‘Ricky’. “We’ve started competitions with a defeat and then improved, but of course the slip-up against Mexico puts the pressure on. What happens is that we get opening-game nerves and it becomes an uphill struggle, but we’re hopeful of turning things around.”

Particularly enticing, should La Albiceleste get back on track and make it to the next phase, would be a potential encounter with hosts Chile – whose squad features six of Rodriguez’s Universidad Catolica colleagues. Before then, though, ‘Ricky’ and his Argentina team-mates must find their shooting boots against Germany, though the young front-runner, showing a superstitious side, preferred not to predict Wednesday’s result: “I’d rather not say anything,” he said, before taking his leave, another broad smile on his face. “I don’t want to ‘jinx’ us!”