“I spoke to Lucas and I told him not to forget where he comes from and how hard he’s fought. I mean, he used to play on pitches with more dirt and glass on them than grass,” said Lucas Pratto’s mother Daniela ahead of Argentina’s crucial 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifier with Colombia earlier this week.
As those words suggest, hard work is something that 28-year-old Pratto is used to, making him just the kind of player who fits right into Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza’s plans. So much so, in fact, that the unheralded frontman, who has spent his career largely out of the limelight, was handed a start against the Colombians, while Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero, two of La Albiceleste’s top five all-time goalscorers, were relegated to the bench.
“He’s no Messi. There’s only one Messi,” Pratto’s mother told cable news channel Todo Noticias. “But he’s going to put his heart and his blood into representing Argentina. He’s made a lot of sacrifices to get to where he is.” Her son proved his worth in San Juan, scoring his side’s second goal in their vital 3-0 win over Los Cafeteros and earning an ovation from the fans when he came off for Higuain in the second half.
Bauza had his eye on Pratto, a typical penalty-box operator, when he was in charge at Sao Paulo and promptly named him in his first Argentina squad in August before handing him starts in the World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay and Venezuela the following month, with the striker opening his international account in the second of those games.
Back then Higuain was absent, with Bauza’s consent, from the squad, while Aguero was injured. Furthermore, Argentina lay a comfortable third in the table. Much had changed in the weeks that followed, however, with Bauza’s side needing to beat the Colombians if they were to end the year in the top five.
Nicknamed “The Bear”, Pratto rewarded his coach’s continued faith with a fine header from a Lionel Messi cross, an indication of how much his stock has risen lately and the change in direction his career has taken. After all, it was not so very long that Pratto was rubbing his eyes in disbelief at being on the same side as Messi. After making his debut against Uruguay, the frontman said: “I look at photos from the game and I just can’t get it into my head that I was actually playing. I think the opportunity came at the right time in my career, though, and I didn’t want to let it slip.”
From makeshift boots to hero status
Pratto has not had things easy in his life. He was only one when his father left the family home in La Plata, with his mother having to take on cleaning jobs to feed him and his brother Leandro, three years his senior.
It was thanks to Leandro that young Lucas began to play football, first of all with a club close to home, as he did not have enough money to go and try his luck with the city’s big outfits, Estudiantes and Gimnasia, and then with lower-league side Cambaceres de Ensenada. Called names at school on account of his chunky frame, Pratto, who started out as a goalscoring midfielder, was soon making the most of his power.
“I had to buy boots when I was at Cambaceres, but as I didn’t have enough money to buy any of the brands, my mother told me to get a pair made up in a shoe shop because it was cheaper,” he told the newspaper El Gráfico in 2013. “I asked for a white pair with the brand's red logo so that they’d match the kit. They were fake, obviously.”
A big fan of Argentinian rock bands La Renga and La Berisso, he made ends meet by taking on a job as a nightclub bouncer. In the meantime, his footballing career progressed, with Boca Juniors signing him to replace Martin Palermo and converting him into a striker, though it was not until he joined Tigre that he made his first division debut. Then came a move to Norwegian club Lyn, followed by a brief homecoming with Union de Santa Fe and a successful spell with Universidad Catolica of Chile.
After a subsequent luckless stint with Genoa, Pratto pitched up at Velez Sarsfield, where he scored 43 goals in 128 games and won three titles. Giving an interview with the newspaper *La Nación *at the time, he was asked about his hopes of playing international football: “I try not to think about it. My problem is that we have the best group of forwards in the world: Messi, Aguero, (Mauro) Icardi, (Carlos) Tevez and Higuain etc. It’s very tough.”
In 2015, the fast-maturing Pratto took on a fresh challenge in signing for Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro, where the goals kept coming and there was even talk of Dunga calling him up to A Seleção. Then came the call from Bauza. The rest is history.
“My dream is to keep on playing for Argentina,” said the striker before the Colombia match. With his subsequent performance, he went a long way to making that dream come true.