No sooner had Ramiro Funes Mori had been called up to the Argentinian national team in August last year than he got on the phone to Arlington, Texas, the city that is home to American Football giants Dallas Cowboys. “Hi Jeff,” he said to the person on the other end of the line. “I’m coming over there with the national team!”
A Copa Libertadores winner with River Plate, shortly after which he signed for Everton, the man they call El Melli saw his maiden international call-up as no ordinary event, but as a landmark achievement that would bring his football career full circle.
“I have Argentinian blood, but Dallas is part of my life because I lived there between the age of nine and 16,” Funes Mori told FIFA.com. “Living in Dallas was a different culture, a different lifestyle. It was very tough at first because I didn’t know the language. When we started school it was difficult for my brother and me, but after a year went by we got used to it.”
It was there that Funes Mori met Jeff Waldrop (the man who took the aforementioned phone call), his soccer coach at Arlington High School, where the player excelled as a holding midfielder with an ability to get forward and score goals, and where he also developed the forceful character that has made him what he is today. Now 25, the Argentinian is one of the breakthrough centre-halves of the English Premier League and an increasingly important figure in an Argentina side pushing for a place at the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™.
Who knows what the future would have held for Funes Mori had FC Dallas, the club where he wanted to learn his trade, had a youth set-up? Along with his identical twin brother Rogelio, now a front-man with Mexican side Club de Futbol Monterrey, he took part in a TV reality show called MLS Dream. Rogelio won the competition, while Ramiro reached the final, earning himself his dream move to Dallas. Sadly for him, however, his dream was cut short, as he explained: “He (Rogelio) never got a contract with FC Dallas and we wanted to play professionally, so we went back to Argentina.”
Strong, tall and neither short on character nor talent, the brothers secured a two-week trial with River Plate in 2008, which ended with them both being signed for the club’s youth team. While Rogelio continued to pursue his career as a striker, Ramiro left the midfield for good: “At River Plate there were already lots of great midfielders. The manager told me to play left centre-back, so that was when I made the switch.”
While Rogelio’s career took off, with him scoring goals in the top flight within a year, Ramiro was firmly in his shadow. “I had the same dream as him, but as a defender I think it is a lot harder to make your debut,” he explained. “Coaches need to have more trust in you. Forwards, if they lose the ball, it doesn’t matter. But as a defender you can’t make big mistakes.”
Ramiro ultimately had to wait two and a half years to make his first-team debut, which came in the darkest hours in the club’s history, in 2011, a year they spent in the second division. Out of necessity, he occupied the left-back slot more often than not, before being sidelined for several months with a knee injury. In the meantime, the goals had dried up for his brother.
By the time River regained their top-flight status, Rogelio had fallen out of favour with the fans. The brothers’ shared surname and physical similarities meant that Ramiro came in for criticism from the stands too, even after his sibling had moved on to pastures new. Then, in March 2014, came what is known in Argentinian footballing circles as El Ramirazo. Nothing was ever quite the same for Ramiro ever again.
“It was a Superclásico against Boca Juniors,” he said, picking up the story. “The game was tied at 1-1 and there were five minutes left when I got up to score a header. There were no visiting fans, no-one from River Plate at all. It was all Boca supporters, and the place went quiet. It was amazing.”
A fringe player at the time, Funes Mori had sealed what was a season-defining win, with El Millonario going on to win the 2014 Torneo Final. Within months, River had swept the board in the continental competitions, while Ramiro had not only nailed down his place in the team, but had also acquired legendary status among the fans for his never-say-die spirit and his crucial goals.
“I’m a strong player and I’m fast,” he said, defining his attributes. “I’m good in the air too and I’m aggressive. I always like to go in hard for every ball.” That last virtue is one he nurtured in his home championship: “You need to be physically tough to play in the Argentine league.”
It has also helped him find his feet in the English league, where he has now cemented a first-team place with Everton, this after having arrived at the club as cover. “England is a very hard league, extremely intense and physical, with very fast players. I am a quick learner and the moment I arrived here I was able to play three or four games very quickly. That gave me a lot of confidence. I didn’t think I would play that quickly.”
The time he spent in Arlington in his formative years also helped him settle in on the other side of the Atlantic: “Probably the most important thing I learned was to speak English. That helped me a lot. You have an advantage in being able to communicate with players on the pitch and the people you encounter.”
Within a few short months he had also earned an unexpectedly prominent slot in the Argentina line-up, with national team coach Gerardo Martino handing the defender four starts in the last five Russia 2018 qualifiers, the only absence being an enforced one, through suspension.
A born winner, Funes Mori set out La Albiceleste’s objectives: “You learn from other top players around you and we have a strong squad, so we should aim to win the qualifiers, the Copa America and then the World Cup.”
One thing he would like to change, however, would be to be closer to Rogelio. While the days have long gone when Ramiro went sleepless at night because his twin was out with his girlfriend – as their mother once revealed – he still misses his sibling, though modern technology now allows them to stay in close contact with each other.
“We were parted when Benfica bought him (in 2013),” explained Ramiro. “It was tough for the first few weeks, but then we got used to it. We use FaceTime every day and I always watch his games.
“I have to search for them on the Internet, and though sometimes there are a lot of problems, I always find a way to watch him play. He follows the Premier League because when we were kids we would always watch English football.”
That was back in Arlington, where Coach Jeff could have been forgiven for thinking he might one day get some very good news over the phone.