Argentina's Ramiro Funes Mori returns to his boyhood in Texas to play USA

Soccer: 2016 Copa America Centenario-Argentina at Bolivia

Most of the Argentina players who face USA in Tuesday’s Copa América semi-finals are part of the generation who were kids when the country suffered its economic collapse at the start of the century.

But the game is particularly special for one of them: Ramiro Funes Mori lived in Texas for eight years and grew up as an American.

At the beginning of 2001, Argentina’s economic crisis left many families’ finances in ruins. Queues at foreign consulates were so long that people would wait in lines all night, hoping to get the magic number to apply for a European passport.

The Ezeiza airport was busiest than ever. Families were leaving the country every day. One plane carried 13-year-old Lionel Messi and his father, Jorge, to Barcelona, as none of his family in Argentina could afford the $900-a-month for his medical condition. Another plane carried the Funes Moris to the United States, willing to start a new life.

Ramiro and Rogelio Funes Mori are identical twins born in Mendoza, Argentina. They started playing football at four, at Godoy Cruz. They left home with their parents when they were nine. Ramiro, originally a holding midfielder, was a good tackler. Rogelio was a natural striker. Their dream was to become professional footballers. The moment they boarded that plane to Dallas, they thought their dream would shatter.

“My husband’s self-imposed condition was that they didn’t quit learning football, or, as they call it in the US, soccer. It wasn’t easy, it’s very expensive, but they made it,” wrote Silvana Mori, the boys’ mother, in a letter to El Gráfico in August 2008 sent from Arlington, Texas. It was there that the family settled, the twins learned English and lived the American life for eight years, attending the Arlington High School, making friends and learning to enjoy baseball, an intriguing – if unfamiliar – sport for most Argentinians.

In March 2008, Sueño MLS, the reality show broadcast by Univision, crowned Rogelio as winner. “Ramiro suffered a knee injury and couldn’t compete until the end, but his brother would vindicate him, against more than 2,000 footballers from different countries. Now they are part of FC Dallas,” added Silvana Mori in that letter. Scouts who had already completed the transfer of Franco Di Santo (also born in Mendoza) to Chelsea set a week’s trial for the twins. Their first day at Chelsea was 11 August 2008.

But without European passports, it was very difficult for them to remain in England. River Plate opened their doors to both brothers, who returned to Argentina, almost a foreign country after so many years in the US.

Despite the fact they had never been part of an official club academy, the Yankees, as they were called, were physically outstanding and didn’t feel the difference with kids that had been training for five years.

Rogelio (who now plays for Monterrey, in Mexico) was seen as the true star of the family. As the brilliant goals rolled in, he was compared to the likes of Hernan Crespo and Diego Milito, adding a weight of expectation that eventually told. He helped River win promotion to the Primera Division, after a catastrophic season that had seen them relegated for the first time in their history. However, it was Ramiro –seen as the less talented twin – who emerged as the hidden gem of River’s academy a few months later, becoming a club idol in a few months of top flight action.

In 2010, he travelled to the World Cup South Africa with Argentina, as part of a kind of sparring partner team that played practice matches against Messi & Co. Ramiro marked Higuain and Agüero without fuss and barked orders as if he was playing the World Cup in that isolated stadium in Hatfield, Pretoria.

It was his personality that transformed him into the quickest unexpected improvement since Gabriel Batistuta, who was seen as an overweight striker in the Newell’s academy in 1987, and later became a River reject in 1990, before erupting as a brilliant striker in Europe. Funes Mori has the same tenacity and attitude as Batistuta: he’s not afraid of making mistakes, he doesn’t hesitate, and he doesn’t feel the pressure. He’s always eager for more.

In just two years, he became an untouchable part of the River team that won the Copa Sudamericana and Copa Libertadores, South American’s equivalent of the Champions League. He also scored the winner in the 2014 Superclásico, the first River victory at Boca’s La Bombonera in 10 years.

“Ramiro was the one that caught my attention from my first day, due to his physical qualities, mental toughness and his personality. He had no fear of mistakes, and if he made one, he would assimilate it quickly and naturally. He is clearly better than the rest in the air, but he’s also a defender with good passing, not just long balls”, said River manager Marcelo Gallardo in his biography, Gallardo Monumental.

Funes Mori was sold to Everton for a record fee of $14m, the highest transfer ever paid for a River defender. The previous record was set by Martin Demichelis when he went to Bayern Munich. “He is equally good with both feet, is very good at headers and a lot of power”, says Demichelis.

Everton gave him a chance and he has been a regular in the first-team ever since. He played 37 games last season, scoring five goals. And if Argentina need better defending on the flanks, he can also switch from centre-back to left-back, as he did against Bolivia.

“He did well in England and keeps evolving game after game. He’s a top centre-back, despite being young. I think we complement each other really well,” says his Argentina team-mate, Nicolás Otamendi.

Argentina have had great attacking talent available in recent years, but defending was always a problem. Until last year, many fans demanded that Javier Mascherano should be deployed at the back, as he does regularly for Barcelona, to solve the existing problems. That was before the emergence of Funes Mori, who came from obscurity in Texas to lead the defence. If that’s not the American dream come true, then what is?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Martin Mazur, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 21st June 2016 12.38 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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