In a world of global megastars and inflated egos, Adelaide United midfielder Marcos Flores presents a unique and complex case study into what it means to be a humble footballing role model.
The scene is a local football ground in Adelaide, South Australia. It's the middle of the A-League finals in a blazing summer and Adelaide United midfield maestro Marcos Flores is out doing a photo shoot with local newspaper The Advertiser. Naturally when a sports star comes to the heart of suburbia, the fans come flocking. For some footballers, raising levels of attention can be nothing more than a nuisance; a pesky side effect of fame.
Not Flores, a man of the people. After the shoot, instead of hopping in his car and evading the prying eyes and swamps of children, he gets a ball out and takes them to the back pitch. There, he starts a large game of kickabout and plays football with his adoring fans. For four hours.
"He's great like that," says The Advertiser's Val Migliaccio, Adelaide's pre-eminent football scribe who was on hand that day to see Argentine Flores create a park football memory those kids will never forget. "He's done that before. He turns up to local clubs and meets a few of the boys and all of a sudden he's out training. He spends time with anyone. It's just who he is."
The 'Beckham effect' takes a stranglehold on mainstream media - but the Marcos Flores effect is more of a serenade that charms the pants off the grassroots. It began in January 2010, when the 25-year-old was lured to South Australia from extreme obscurity in the Chilean top flight. Adelaide, like the rest of the A-League, was on the hunt for an attacking, creative, game-breaking midfielder. United legend Carl Veart found Flores, the trequartista from Reconquista, Argentina - and he had something special. Once he was discovered, he was pursued and courted and after a year he was prised from Curicó Unido and brought to Adelaide who were in crisis.
At the tail end of a hugely disappointing 2009/2010 season that saw the Reds finish anchored to the bottom of the A-League table, Flores' wizardry was the imputes for revival. He played in the last two games of that campaign and turned them into rare wins, but that was a mere entree of what United fans would be treated to the year after.
Flores played on with invention and pizzazz but added endurance and toughness to his bag of skills and conquered the A-League. Dutch striker Sergio van Dijk has Flores' and his inch-perfect through balls to thank for teeing up a chunk of the 16 goals that earned him the league's golden boot. His status as an elite midfielder in the competition was confirmed with the A-League's highest individual honour, the Johnny Warren Medal, bestowed upon him in March.
"He's probably the only true number 10 the A-League has. When you give him the ball there's always the unexpected that could happen," Migliaccio says, having seen few players of Flores' calibre in his 17 years of coverage. "He can thread the ball through the eye of a needle, he's got vision and he does things which other players wouldn't normally try. They might try it in the parklands or in training but not on the pitch. That's what excites the fans."
But what takes those fans beyond mere excitement and into full-blown awe and admiration is his Flores' magic off the pitch. When sporting executives preach the mantra of 'community engagement', they should really be using Flores as a case study. Of course, football is still a minnow in Australia when compared to the dominant sporting codes - Australian rules and rugby league - that together hold a duopoly over the island nation's sporting, media and cultural sectors. But while stars of those sports find themselves in endless trouble, Flores finds a way to cut through the noise and is the model ambassador for football in parochial Adelaide.
"They're really cold and reserved," Migliaccio says of the stars of the 'eggball' codes, who consistently find ways to ruin their sport's hefty investment in community engagement with extreme and idiotic controversy – like the twisted tale of rugby league player Joel Monaghan, sacked by the Canberra Raiders late last year after a picture of him receiving oral sex from a dog circulated on Twitter. Read that again.
But Flores is cut from a different, more authentic cloth. "As far as sportspeople are concerned, the way Marcos conducts himself... it's not for show. It's just who he is." Flores is a dreamboat; the kind of guy you would take home to meet your mother, even if you were a straight celibate male. Had he not been gifted with a unique football ability that clubs around the world offer millions for, he could easily make a living starring in magazine ads for Calvin Klein. Tall, dark, slender, handsome and effortlessly cool, he sports the kind of designer stubble that Hollywood stylists spend hours on replicating. It all strikes a chord with the Adelaide public, whose pockets of Mediterranean lineage have taken a liking for his distinctly exotic looks.
But Marcos Flores is no hollow shell. On the inside, he makes good on all the promises his outside offers but does so with oodles of humility, care and esteem. Few footballers, particularly in this era of big dollars and even bigger egos, show such a devotion to their fans and the grassroots of the sport that got them where they are. Flores is more than just a good bloke - he breaks the mould.
In an age where clubs carefully construct social networking profiles for their stars and stage-manage each and every update, Flores' personal Facebook account is open and inviting. Any Adelaide fan worth their salt is already a friend and has either received a response to their wall post or spoken about his fitness and the week's game with him on Facebook Chat. Perhaps sceptical folk could question his whether he’s genuine or not but one fan, 18-year-old Dimi Sianis of Burnside, found to his surprise that the Argentinean wasn't simply barging through his fan mail.
Having sparked a brief conversation or two with his idol online, Dimi went to Adelaide's season launch function and was approached by Flores, who connected the name and profile picture with the face and proceeded to talk football in the flesh.
It wasn't a one off - that relationship has been maintained with every chance meeting between the two, whether it be out at Glenelg on New Year's Eve or straight after a Reds game, where Flores would come to the home end and pick out those he's on a first-name basis with. That such a high-profile star would be bothered to remember their fans, much less instigate chatter and interactivity with them, still has Dimi stunned.
"He has time for everyone. To be recognised by a Johnny Warren Medalist is a good feeling," he smiles. "He makes an effort to get to know all his fans. He's called one of my friends on the phone, and another one of my friends spoke to him at a club in town and even traded numbers with him. He's an absolute champion, both on and off the field."
That's just one story. Adelaide fan message boards are littered with others. It seems nearly everyone has had their own personal Marcos Flores experience. "It's not like some players who every time you run into them it's like the first time you've met them," Migliaccio says. "With Marcos it's like you've been mates with him for the last 20 years. He's like a magnet to people."
The transfer fee boffins at transfermarkt.co.uk value Flores at £352,000 - in plain footballing terms, an absolute steal - but Migliaccio believes he is just about priceless. "You just can't put a dollar figure on him, as a package," he says. "I'd love to see him as the next captain. People would disagree because he doesn't speak great English but he's just got this charisma that so many of the great captains across the world possess."
In November last year, Migliaccio reported that Flores was in talks with MLS hopefuls, the reborn New York Cosmos - the new kings of indie cool in football. Even if it's just a rumour, it doesn't take much to imagine Flores taking his swagger and panache to the Upper East Side, mixing it at hipster underground cocktail parties with Eric Cantona and Giorgio Chinaglia and spreading the gospel of football through the five boroughs. He represents innovation, confidence, glamour and respect - exactly what the Cosmos Country renaissance promises. It would be a perfect match.
But for now, Reds diehards hope a new contract can keep potential suitors away for the time being. "The fans have started to dig their heels in. They don't want to see him gone," Migliaccio says. "Adelaide are offering him marquee player terms for the next three years with a good wage so hopefully he'll stay here. He calls Adelaide home now; he lives down next to the beach and absolutely loves it." It's clear that love is mutual.