“Santiago Ascacibar is the next Javier Mascherano.”
It was Julio Olarticoechea, a FIFA World Cup™ winner with Argentina at Mexico 1986, who came out with that memorable line in a radio interview during the 2016 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament. Just a few training sessions and a couple of matches had sufficed for the ex-international, coach of the Argentinian Olympic team competing in Rio de Janeiro, to come to this remarkable conclusion about the midfielder, one of Argentinian football’s rising stars.
Six months later, Santiago Ascacibar was able to smile at the memory. “I don’t really know how to take that,” he told FIFA.com. “I can’t even begin to compare myself to Mascherano.” Now captain of Argentina’s U-20 side, the young starlet will, from 18 January onwards, try to help his country to land – via the South American Youth Championship – one of the four available berths at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017.
“Fortunately, I have many years ahead of me to try to reach a similar level,” said the Estudiantes de La Plata player, who has been a regular starter since February 2016 and has been talked about in terms of a senior call-up and a possible move to Europe. “Javier is a huge player and always shows it. I would love to be as consistent as him.”
An anecdote – recounted by his former youth coach, Omar Rulli, as part of the Doble 5 television programme on the TyC Sports channel – from his early days at Estudiantes reveals a lot about Ascacibar’s attitude and determination.
He was barely eight years old when Rulli, who was also responsible for originally bringing him to the club, introduced a simple passing exercise during a training session. The objective of the drill was to receive the ball with the foot the players used most often and then pass it back with their weaker foot – the left, in Ascacibar’s case.
After several failed attempts, frustration got the better of the competitive, blond-haired beginner. “Don’t worry, son, once you’ve kicked the ball with your left foot 1,000 times, you’ll learn how to do it,” vowed Rulli, the father of Real Sociedad and Argentina goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.
Three weeks later, during a competitive youth match with Velez Sarsfield, Ascacibar received the ball with his right foot and passed it on to a team-mate with his left. As the teams were leaving the pitch at the end, the coach shouted over, “See Santiago, you managed to pass with your left foot!"
The boy replied, “Yes, and I’ve still got 423 kicks to go!”
Maturity and personality
“I can be a bit obsessive about certain things, especially when it comes to my own game,” said Ascacibar, who has developed into a tireless runner who covers every blade of grass, despite his slight frame. “Putting in the work during the week is the best way to improve. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself, which increases if things don’t turn out right.”
This trait could explain why he has always struggled with the concept of losing, and why he even wanted to take his ball home with him when the result did not go his way in neighbourhood kick-abouts. “I learned over time,” he said. “Other players liked to wind me up. It wasn’t easy because, just as my older brother would annoy me at home, team-mates and opponents would do the same when we played football. But I grew up and I changed.”
The 19-year-old – who still lives in his family home in Villa Elvira, an unassuming district of La Plata, the capital of the Province of Buenos Aires – has a habit of speaking with a maturity that belies his years. “I haven’t ever left because I feel comfortable here,” explained the precocious South American, who is due to turn 20 in February.
“Lots of people don’t have the possibility of staying with their family or instead choose to be more independent. I enjoy living with my parents and four brothers,” he said. He also shares his house with two other individuals: a pair of friends and Estudiantes team-mates, who have been hosted by his family for the past six years, after one of them was unable to return to the accommodation facilities laid on by the club for footballers from other provinces.
And so, what with the affection of his mother Mariana, who still reminds him every morning when it is time for him to set off for training, and the guidance of his father Javier, who took him to work when he decided to leave primary school, Ascacibar has developed a personality that is recognised by all who know him. “He wants to play football, rather than comb his hair in the mirror,” summed up Agustin Alayes, part of Estudiantes’ backroom staff.
Even Juan Sebastian Veron, president of the club and now a team-mate after confirming his surprising return to the pitch, has been won over. “There’s no limit to what he can achieve, and he’s now in a learning process where he has a lot to give and a lot to learn,” said the former Lazio star, who convinced Ascacibar to complete his primary school education within the club’s youth academy.
The next big challenge around the corner is the 2017 South American Youth Championship in Ecuador, where Argentina have been placed in a tricky-looking Group B alongside Uruguay, Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia. The top three teams in the pool will advance to a final six-team section. “Expectations are high – we’re aiming to finish in the top four, and if we can, lift the trophy,” said the admirer of Diego Maradona, a tattooed image of whom adorns his leg.
Since experiencing Rio 2016, where Argentina failed to reach the knockout stage, Ascacibar is well aware of what is at stake at major tournaments, especially as the proud bearer of the captain’s armband, but he is ready for the challenge. “I get great joy from wearing the national jersey. It’s one of the best feelings in the world,” he concluded in confident fashion.