Guarani or Messi?

What does the choice of a 17 year-old tell us about the way the footballing world is changing? Welcome to IBWM, Ralph Hannah.

“What a fucker, fucking Kurepa.” It was the day of Paraguay’s clásico between Cerro Porteño and Olimpia but this Olimpista was ranting about a Cerro player on the bench, a 17-year-old. His friend butted in “He’s young…he’s young. And it is just for the money, if he’s Paraguayan he goes for $3.5 million, if he’s Argentinian he goes for $20 million. Who’s ever bought a Paraguayan player for $20 million for fucks sake!” The two fans were talking about Juan Manuel Iturbe, dubbed the Guaraní Messi, and his decision to choose the country of his birth (Argentina) over the country of his parents and the country where he has lived since the age of five, Paraguay. It is a decision that has gripped the nation – even the President invited Iturbe for breakfast last week (but denies asking him to reconsider his decision).

This isn’t a piece about whether the Messi tag is deserved – one thing that is already certain is that Iturbe is going to be good, really good – but it is about the Guaraní half of his moniker and what Paraguayans make of him. Guaraní refers to the tribe that lived on the land in what is now Paraguay, it also refers to the official language of the country (Paraguay is officially bi-lingual with Spanish the other language), the language Iturbe speaks at home with his parents. His parents that want him to play for Paraguay. His father stated last week that he would prefer his son to line up in red and white but like President Lugo he was not going to try and change his mind.

There was one key person, an Argentinian, who tried to get Iturbe to play for the Albirroja of his family after putting Brazil to the sword in the South American U-20 Championships in Peru (where he played in the Albiceleste of Argentina). The Paraguayan national team’s head coach Gerardo Martino was quick to remind Juan Iturbe that the door remains open – only for Iturbe to firmly shut it, lock it and throw away the key in the Rio Corrientes as he swam to the other side. “Going back [to play for Paraguay] would be a failure for me…I’ve decided to play for Argentina, the decision has been made”.

So come the Copa América, Iturbe will probably be watching the original Messi on TV and Paraguay will probably reach the quarter-finals. Then they will wonder what would have happened, had they been able to call upon the 17-year-old wünderkind bound for Europe to beef up their left-hand side instead of a 23-year-old stuck in Mexico (no disrespect to Edgar Benitez).

Iturbe's decision isn’t a complete shock, after all he gave us a pretty big clue when he opted for the Argentinian U-20 team! Recent years have seen Nestor Ortigoza, Sergio Aquino, Jonathan Santana and most famously Lucas Barrios turn their backs on the country of their birth to represent Paraguay, the country of their parents. In Iturbe’s case his motives to play for Paraguay appear even stronger. Born in Argentina to Paraguayan economic migrants (both countries are part of Mercosur which allows all citizens to move and settle freely between member states, much like the EU) Juan and his family moved back to Paraguay when he was just five years old.

For those reasons Paraguayans feel he is one of their own and tensions are high. On facing Paraguay Iturbe told national paper Ultima Hora “It will be a truly complicated moment, emotionally and from a football perspective”. The online article drew a flood of responses, and mostly negative – here were just a few:

“As if you’re going to get in the Argentina side hahaha” par26

“Score against Paraguay? Not even Messi can [score] against the Paraguay defence…you play well Iturbe but as a person you are evidently disgusting, on top of that a Cerrista” oscarvilla

“Regrettable!! A sell out who chose to be Kurepa [literally pig-skin a Guaraní derogatory term for Argentinian dating back from War of Triple Alliance] and play for Cerro.” cmoes

But among this wrath of Paraguayan anger, an odd combination because Paraguayans are renowned for being tranquilo (reeeeeeelaxed), I found this comment that interested me:

“Arsenio Erico said no to the Albiceleste and continues to be one of the greatest in the history of world football. You too can do the same. ¡Fuerza, Itu!” Manuel Flores

Now Arsenio Erico’s story is one for another article on another day, but the interesting part was to hear this support for Iturbe. So I got off my desk and away from irate cyber commentators to try and find some more balanced views on what Paraguayans really think of Iturbe.

My first stop was in Paraguay’s Universidad Nacional, the country’s principal place of learning and just a few blocks from the national stadium, Defensores del Chaco. There wasn’t any student support for Iturbe from Carmen Alfonzo an Olimpista. “For me, he has to play for the Paraguayan national team – he grew up here” she said. “It’s for his roots” she added as I left. I moved across the centre of town on an uncharacteristically cloudy morning, passing street vendors selling knock-off Paraguay, Cerro and Olimpia shirts, the money changers on the corner of Argentinian bank ‘La Nacion’ and away from the riverfront where grubby children played football in the shanty towns; desperate to be the next Cabañas or Santa Cruz.

I arrived at a private English language centre (British English I’ll have you know) to speak to football mad English teacher Sergio Lahaye. Like Carmen he is an Olimpista but he had an interesting approach to the decision by Paraguay’s prodigy. “I think it's a bit hypocritical to criticize him, as we have at least 3 players in our national team that did exactly the same thing” referring to Lucas Barrios, Nestor Ortigoza and Jonathan Santana. “If anything, we should look at it the other way, and say that we finally have a Paraguayan player playing for Argentina. That would really piss them off!”

So finally some support for Iturbe, or at least somebody who didn’t criticize him. I was sure there was more and I got back on the hulk of rusting metal that is a Paraguayan bus and headed for the rich suburb of Villamorra.

One of Paraguay’s most popular TV programmes is El Conejo, which has been running for fifteen years on Saturday nights. Taking time out from the show the much-loved producer and presenter Palo Rubín gave me his thoughts on Iturbe. He was understanding and refused to judge him. “Pain and frustration coupled with youth, and maybe even a lack of spiritual guidance, make for a cocktail that makes it easy to understand his decision” Palo stated. “Instead change that cocktail for one of tenacity, assurance and perseverance.”

Palo’s comments seemed to respect the difficult decision Iturbe has taken, and certainly no Paraguayan is accusing him of taking the easy option by trying to challenge Messi for a spot in the Argentinian starting XI. Once again Iturbe’s age was mentioned, which ought to remind us of the tremendous pressure talented young footballers are put under.

In Paraguay, below the surface of angry Olimpistas (most though not all opposed to Iturbe’s decision support Olimpia) there is a general understanding of Iturbe’s decision. The main defence of Iturbe’s decisions that he is young, and it is a valid point. When I was 17 I did the opposite and opted for Paraguay (to volunteer here for a year) which proved to be the best decision I’ve ever made, but I’m unsure if Iturbe will be saying the same thing in 10 years. He is like so many gifted young players who move to a big club and find themselves on the bench behind the established stars. It would be such a waste of talent to not be playing regular football. A shame for the player and also football supporters to only see flashes of his brilliance off the bench. It reminded me of something Palo said to me before I left “I hope he doesn’t leave football, if the AFA [Argentinian FA] turn their back on him”. Nobody wants that.

It is unlikely Iturbe will become a national idol in Argentina but in Paraguay he could have been that hero just for playing good football and scoring bags of goals, like Arsenio Erico did before him. Maybe he isn’t satisfied with six million people in a small landlocked South American country loving him, maybe he wants the whole world to adore him. Maybe Iturbe is less bothered about the Guaraní and more concerned about the Messi. The one thing I’m sure of is that this isn’t the last case of its kind, in the last five years 248,144 Paraguayans became legal residents of Argentina – the battle for talent in a world where borders are becoming increasingly blurred is set to continue.

You can follow Ralph on Twitter @paraguayralph, and be sure to visit his Football Top Tens blog.