The Argentine “Manchester”, which gave the world Messi

A mural of Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi in Rosario – Marcelo Manera

From the moment Messi lifted the glittering World Cup trophy, travel companies have been showering us with vacation ideas like duct tape. But no one, so far, seems to understand that a pilgrimage to honor Argentina’s greatest ever player must include the third most populous city in the country: Rosario.

Lionel Andrés Messi was born on June 24, 1987 at the Italian Garibaldi Hospital in Rosario. He lived in the suburb of La Bajada south of the city centre, attended 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 throughout these shrines dedicated to the footballing genius, known affectionately as La Pulga, or La Pulce, due to his diminutive size and cunning style of play.

Rosario and Manchester - Getty Images

Rosario and Manchester – Getty Images

Rosario is only 190 miles from Buenos Aires, and a decade ago there was talk of a high-speed train to connect the cities. Economic woes have seen the project shelved, but there is still a rail service – no mean feat in a country that has mothballed most of its once world-class network.

The clumsy rolling stock that lines the line takes four hours to complete the journey from the capital’s Retiro station to Rosario Norte – plenty of time to take in the sights of the humid Pampas; some of the best agricultural land in the world can be found in northern Buenos Aires and Santa Fe, the province to which Rosario belongs.

If that slow speed makes you think of Northern Rail, well, that’s fitting enough. Because Rosario can be compared to our post-industrial northern cities – especially Manchester, England’s ‘third’ city.

Parana River - Getty

Parana River – Getty

Here, too, there is an industrial center, railway junction, and commercial and maritime hub, although Rosario, on the right bank of the mighty Paraná River (the second-longest waterway in South America after the Amazon), had no need for 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 has received state-funded grants and projects as thanks. Like Manchester, Rosario is known as a hardworking city – generating the highest GDP per capita in Argentina – in contrast to Buenos Aires, widely regarded as a hedonistic and frivolous spendthrift of the national wealth.

In Barrio Fisherton, a late 19th-century model neighborhood designed by architect Alejandro Bustillo, you might even think you’ve been teleported to Greater Manchester. Here British expatriates, many of whom were railway workers, lived in redbrick and mock Tudor houses and sipped gin and tonics at local clubs. The Jockey Club is known for its prowess at polo, golf, hockey and rugby.

Statue of San Martin and Clock Tower of the University of Rosario - Alamy

Statue of San Martin and Clock Tower of the University of Rosario – Alamy

Football is dominated by two other top-tier clubs. Rosario Central, founded in 1889 as a railway team, were national champions three times and were Mario Kempes’ club before moving on to Valencia and Ángel di María’s first club as a senior. Its main rival – Messi’s Newell’s – is named after one 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 manager Marcelo Bielsa. I once watched Newell’s Old Boys at home to Boca Juniors – a loud and combative game – but the local derby is probably the one to see if you happen to plan a visit.

Newell's Old Boys play against Boca Juniors at Estadio El Coloso del Parque Marcelo Bielsa in Rosario - Luciano Bisbal

Newell’s Old Boys play against Boca Juniors at Estadio El Coloso del Parque Marcelo Bielsa in Rosario – Luciano Bisbal

Rosario really is a great place to spend a couple of days and a smart way to break up a long overland journey to Córdoba, Salta or the Iguazu Falls. The Argentine flag, with the colors of the Bourbon family, was hoisted here for the first time by Manuel Belgrano; an impressive memorial complex beside the river houses his remains. A 13-foot statue of Ernesto “Che” Guevara commemorates the city’s most famous son.

Like all Argentine cities, Rosario is a hodgepodge of architectural styles, but neoclassical, baroque and modern buildings are scattered here and there. There is an official modernist/nouveau self-guided walk. The Beaux-Arts-style Palacio Fuentes, built in the 1920s by Juan Fuentes Echeverría – who started out as a farmer and dishwasher and became an agricultural magnate – is a local masterpiece.

Engraving on a wall in Rosario: a scene of heroes commanded by Manuel Belgrano at the National Flag Monument - Alamy

Engraving on a wall in Rosario: a scene of heroes commanded by Manuel Belgrano at the National Flag Monument – Alamy

With more than a dozen theatres, around 20 museums and a vibrant local music scene, including punk-ska band Argies, there’s plenty to keep its 1.5 million residents entertained, including a large student population. The Pichincha neighborhood is a food hub sometimes compared to Buenos Aires’ trendy Palermo Viejo, with everything from traditional steakhouses to ultra-cool speakeasies.

Rosario may have been named after a holy virgin – the name means Rosario, as in the prayer – but it became known as “Argentine Chicago” because it was the main port for grain exports; it was also known for its Sicilian mobsters. An old granary, the Davis Silo, now houses a museum of contemporary art. Local patriots would prefer their city to be known as the cradle of the flag or the capital of cereals or even Argentine Barcelona, ​​in reference to its history of working-class solidarity.

I think it should be twinned with Manchester, for all the above reasons. Should Messi ever return home, though, the religious and footballing traditions will finally be intertwined into a single deity. It is already referred to as the local export, rather than the hides, frozen meats and grain that built the city. Rosario de Santa Fe will probably become Rosario de San Leo. They could even remove the May sun and adorn the national colors with his face.

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