On the western shore of the snaking Paraná River in Argentina lies Rosario, a city known as the “Cradle of the Argentine Flag”. The colours you recognize as Argentina’s today were raised for the first time in Rosario in 1812, so it seems fitting that the city continues to fly the flag for Argentine football today.
Six members of the squad that Jorge Sampaoli takes to Russia were born in Rosario, coming through the ranks of one of the city’s two biggest clubs, Rosario Central and Newell’s Old Boys. Sampaoli was even educated as young player at Newell’s himself. The city has always been a hotbed of talent, a breeding ground for people of influence. The famous revolutionary Che Guevara was born as the eldest of five children in Rosario in 1928 and was a huge Central fan.
Among the Rosario diaspora at the World Cup this summer are goalkeeper Nahuel Guzmán, defender Cristian Ansaldi, midfielder Éver Banega, winger Angel Di Maria and arguably the city’s most famous son of all – Lionel Messi. The youngest of the six Rosarinos in Sampaoli’s selection is 22-year old Giovani Lo Celso.
Having made his senior club debut as a 19-year old in July of 2015, Lo Celso career trajectory has been remarkably vertical. Less than three years after he pulled on the blue and yellow stripes of Rosario Central for the first time, Lo Celso will be wearing Argentina’s light blue and white at the World Cup this summer.
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Lo Celso’s Early Career
Giovani Lo Celso was invited to join the youth academy at Rosario Central in his early teens in 2010. In a country where the best young players are fast tracked to the first team, Lo Celso’s progress was a little slower, allowing him to fly under the radar somewhat.
Lo Celso’s gradual development meant he was overlooked for Argentina’s under age squads – in fact, his call up to the national team for the Olympics in 2016 was his first involvement at any level of international football.
Playing as a number ten, Lo Celso made his debut for Rosario Central against Vélez Sarsfield in 2015, eventually going on to play sixteen games in his inaugural season as a first team player. And though his output in terms of goals and assists was modest, his overall performances were already starting to catch the eye.
With his languid running style and imaginative passing ability, Lo Celso quickly drew comparisons with the enigmatic Juan Román Riquelme. Lo Celso’s left foot was manufacturing chances and finding passing lanes where most saw dead ends. His stock was rising.
A Big Summer
After a 2016 Argentine Primera División campaign filled with promise, the summer months would see Lo Celso’s career prospects spike dramatically. In late July, French giants Paris St. Germain stole in ahead of a plethora of admirers to seal a transfer for Lo Celso, handing over a modest £8.5m free for his services. As part of the deal, new PSG manager Unai Emery allowed Lo Celso to remain at Rosario Central until December 2016.
At that point, a 20-year old Lo Celso had played less than thirty matches in senior football but was already considered at the requisite level to play for Europe’s most reputable clubs. Lo Celso was suddenly thrust to the forefront of Argentinean football, though many questioned how a player deemed good enough for PSG had never represented the Albiceleste.
With his reputation burgeoning and a clamour for his inclusion in the media, Lo Celso was eventually drafted in to the U23 Argentinean squad for the Summer Olympics in Rio in August 2016. He made his first appearance from the bench in Argentina’s first Group match against Portugal and started the next two games against Algeria and Honduras. And even though Argentina were somewhat embarrassingly eliminated from the tournament on goal difference, Lo Celso’s involvement was a bright note in an otherwise gloomy outcome.
On to Paris
Lo Celso returned to Rosario Central after the Olympics as a footballer riding the crest of a wave and his surge in confidence was reflected in his performances on the pitch. His endeavours were rewarded with a call up to the Argentinean senior squad in November and Lo Celso started both friendly wins over Russia and Nigeria.
Having been signed by PSG in July as a promising youngster, Lo Celso arrived in Paris on December 31st 2016 as a full Argentinean international, though the midfielder would initially find life tough in the French capital. Lo Celso had to wait until April before he made his debut for his new employers, coming on in the dying embers a Coupe de France quarter final game against lower league US Avranches.
Lo Celso would have to wait until later the same month to appear his first league game for PSG against Montpellier, coming on as an injury time substitue, and in total he played just 82 minutes of Ligue 1 football in an underwhelming first five months at the club. Understandably, the bleak start to his European club career led to questions being asked about Lo Celso’s decision to leave Argentina so readily.
Though as is often the case in football, opportunity can often arrive at the expense of others. Lo Celso had again been gathering minutes on the field in bits and pieces for the first months of the 2017/18 season, but an injury to experienced holding midfielder Thiago Motta presented the youngster with a chance to impress, albeit in a position he wasn’t fully familiar with.
Unai Emergy rewarded Lo Celso’s patience, slotting him into the midfield spot vacated by the injured Motta and the Argentinean international didn’t look back. Speaking in January, Emery said:
“He’s an excellent example. With patience, he has worked every day in training. To begin with he wasn’t in the squad, then he played five minutes, then 10. He’s won the right to be here. He won the respect of his team-mates, then the coach and then the fans.”
“He’s very focused, very involved. He plays to improve, to adapt to the position that the team demands. That’s why, as a sentinel, he’s at a very good level. We now have a very important player for us in the squad.”
By the time the 2017/18 season came to a close, Lo Celso had started twenty-three times for Paris St. Germain, scoring four times and providing three assists for his team mates. The 22-year old had established himself as a mainstay of Unai Emery’s midfield, revelling in a deeper play making role.
Lo Celso continued to feature heavily for Argentina after the turn of the year, starting their 2-0 friendly win in March against Italy, where he laid on the pass for Éver Banega’s opening goal and coming off the bench in their 1-6 loss to Spain. In May, he anchored the midfield alongside Javier Mascherano in Argentina’s 4-0 World Cup warm-up victory against Haiti.
Lo Celso’s role at the World Cup
Jorge Sampaoli’s use of Lo Celso in recent friendly matches suggests that the PSG midfielder will make the starting XI for Argentina this summer. Lo Celso’s unique ability to break the lines with his inventive passing from deep positions adds an extra dimension to the Argentinean midfield. With the right service, Argentina’s attack can be utterly devastating and Lo Celso’s choice, range and execution of pass could be pivotal in getting the most out of Di Maria, Aguero and Messi in the final third.
Inside a span of two years, Giovani Lo Celso has made the transition from little-known Rosarino to Paris St. Germain regular and Argentinean international at a World Cup. His career has been catapulted through the footballing stratosphere and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
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