From the moment Messi lifted the glittering World Cup trophy, travel agencies have flooded us with vacation ideas like so much duct tape. But none, so far, seem to have understood that a pilgrimage to honor Argentina’s greatest player of all time must include the country’s third most populous city, Rosario.
Lionel Andrés Messi was born on June 24, 1987 at the Italiano Garibaldi Hospital in Rosario. He lived in the suburb of La Bajada south of the city centre, went to General Las Heras school and played for Newell’s Old Boys youth team before moving to Barcelona in 2000.
Needless to say, there are murals and graffiti in all these shrines to the footballing genius – known affectionately as La Pulga, or The Flea, due to his diminutive stature and delicate style of play. .
Rosario is only 300 km from Buenos Aires and ten years ago there was talk of a high-speed train to connect the cities. Economic difficulties have seen the project abandoned, but there is still a rail service – no small feat in a country that has mothballed most of its once world-class network.
The clumsy rolling stock plying the line takes four hours to make the journey from the capital’s Retiro Station to Rosario Norte – plenty of time to take in views of the wet pampas; Some of the best agricultural land in the world is found in northern Buenos Aires and in Santa Fe, the province to which Rosario belongs.
If that slow speed makes you think of Northern Rail, well that’s totally appropriate. Because Rosario can be compared to our post-industrial cities of the North – in particular Manchester, the “third” city of England.
Here too is an industrial center, a railway hub and a commercial and maritime node – although Rosario, on the right bank of the mighty Paraná River (the second longest waterway in South America after the Amazon), n didn’t need a channel.
Here, too, there are memories of political radicalism; Rosario was once dubbed the “Capital of Peronism” for its fervent support of Juan Perón, and received grants and state-funded projects as thanks. Like Manchester, Rosario is known as a hard-working city – generating the highest GDP per capita in Argentina – unlike Buenos Aires, widely seen as a hedonistic and frivolous spender of the national wealth.
In Barrio Fisherton, a model late 19th century neighborhood designed by architect Alejandro Bustillo, you might even think you’ve teleported to Greater Manchester. Here, British expats, many of whom were employed on the railways, lived in red-brick houses and mock Tudor houses and sipped gin and tonic at their local clubs. The Jockey Club is known for its prowess in polo, golf, hockey and rugby.
Football is dominated by two other top clubs. Rosario Central, founded in 1889 as a railway team, were national champions three times and were Mario Kempes’ club before joining Valencia and Ángel di María’s first club as a senior. Its main rival – Messi’s Newell’s – is named after Isaac Newell of Strood, Kent, who founded a Church of England school in Rosario and whose son, Claudio, co-founded the club.
Its stadium is named after former player, scout and coach Marcelo Bielsa. I saw Newell’s Old Boys at home against Boca Juniors once – a loud and combative game – but the local derby is probably the one to see if you’re planning a visit.
Rosario really is a great place to spend a few days and a nifty way to break up a long overland journey to Cordoba, Salta or the Iguazú Falls. The Argentine flag, in the colors of the House of Bourbons, was hoisted there for the first time by Manuel Belgrano; a massive riverside memorial complex houses his remains. A 13-foot statue of Ernesto “Che” Guevara commemorates the city’s most famous son.
Like all Argentinian cities, Rosario is a hodgepodge of architectural styles, but neoclassical, baroque, and modern buildings are dotted here and there. There is an official modernist/new self-guided walk. The Beaux-Arts-style Palacio Fuentes, built in the 1920s by Juan Fuentes Echeverría – who started as a farmer and dishwasher and became an agricultural magnate – is a local masterpiece.
With more than a dozen theatres, around 20 museums and a bustling local music scene – including punk-ska band Argies – there’s plenty to keep the 1.5 million locals entertained, including a large student population . The Pichincha neighborhood is a foodie hub sometimes compared to the trendy Palermo Viejo neighborhood in Buenos Aires, with everything from traditional steakhouses to ultra-cool speakeasies.
Rosario might be named after a holy virgin – the name means Rosary, as in prayer – but it became known as “the Argentine Chicago” because it was the main grain export port; he was also known for his Sicilian gangsters. A former granary, the Silo Davis, now houses a museum of contemporary art. Local patriots would prefer their city to be known as the birthplace of the flag or the grain capital or even the Argentine Barcelona – in reference to its history of working-class solidarity.
I think it should be paired with Manchester, for all the reasons above. Should Messi ever return home, however, religious and footballing traditions would ultimately be linked into a single deity. It’s already considered the local export, rather than the hides, frozen meats, and wheat that built the city. Rosario de Santa Fe will probably become Rosario de San Leo. They could even suppress the May sun and adorn the national colors of her face.