Buenos Aires to Sunderland isn’t a particularly well-trodden path, but it’s one that Julio Arca is forever grateful for taking.
Arca was just 19 when he made a career-defining move across the world, to a new continent and culture quite different from his own.
He didn’t know much about the city or the club when he first arrived, but he grew to love life in the North East of England. He ultimately stayed there for almost two decades, becoming a fan favourite at Sunderland, Middlesbrough and South Shields due to his endearing blend of skill, humility and determination.
“It was complicated in the beginning because I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t know much about the English lifestyle, but then, with the passing of time, it became a lot easier,” Arca says.
“I remember talking with my agent and saying that obviously this is a chance to go to Europe, we can spend one or two years in England and then see if there are opportunities to go to Spain or Italy.
“Things developed and when I was close to leaving I didn’t. I had 90% of my football career in England.”
Making his name
Obsessed with football from a young age, Arca would play whenever and wherever he could.
He credits futsal with refining his touch and technique, while the coaches at Argentinos Juniors taught him the demands of the game, giving him a deeper understanding of what was needed to make it as a professional.
They shaped him into the player he became, one good enough to represent his country at youth level alongside Andres d’Alessandro, Maxi Rodriguez and Javier Saviola. It was while playing for Argentina Under-21s in a friendly against England at Craven Cottage that Arca alerted the watching Peter Reid to his ability.
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Sunderland continued to track Arca’s progress once he returned home and fought off competition from other European clubs to sign him for £3.5million. He was made to wait a few weeks for his debut but had an immediate impact, scoring a rare headed goal in a 1-1 draw with West Ham United.
It was the perfect way to introduce himself to a packed crowd at the Stadium of Light.
“I didn’t play many games in front of that amount of people at the beginning of my football career, so it was a good welcome to play my first game with 48,000 fans in a full stadium,” he says. “I was lucky to score so it was a great start for myself.
“It gave me a fantastic platform on the psychological side, to show myself, ‘You can play here, and you can score. You can do this, and you can do that.’”
Peter Reid was an old-school manager who helped Arca adapt to English football, which was much quicker and more direct than he was used to. Reid looked out for his players and led them to success on the pitch, including another seventh-placed finish.
“He was great. A proper English manager with two sides to him. He could be nice, but when the team didn’t do the right thing, he could obviously be a bit grumpy,” laughs Arca.
“It helped me a lot to have a first English manager like that. He taught me how to respond to the things he said and how to take them on board. He looked after me. I was a young player and he obviously had a lot of experience in football as a manager and a player. He was good with me.”
Sergeant Wilko worries
Sunderland were sturdy and committed, with quality in key areas, but the team began to falter in Arca’s second season. After surviving relegation by a single place and just four points, Reid was sacked in October 2002, with Howard Wilkinson replacing him.
Arca was frozen out as Sunderland floundered, losing all but one of their last 19 games to finish bottom. He was ready to leave until Mick McCarthy reassured him of his importance to the team and the role he wanted him to play in their promotion push.
“A football career is not that long, and I was looking to play. I only played a few games under Howard Wilkinson.
“My mind was set on leaving the club until Mick McCarthy arrived. I had a few conversations with him, and he told me that I going to be in his plans. I played most of the games in my Sunderland career under him.
“He gave me the freedom to play the way I wanted to play. There were no restrictions on what I had to do.
“I started playing left-back, which is the position I always liked but could never play much for different reasons. Then he moved me to left-wing and I had a good partnership with George McCartney.”
The next couple of years restored Sunderland’s pride and gave Arca a new lease of life. The Black Cats reached the semi-finals of the play-offs and the FA Cup, falling just short in both, before returning to claim the Championship title.
Arca scored nine goals and relished bringing success to the Stadium of Light.
“As a player you want to win trophies. That’s what you play for,” he says. “One of my ambitions was to win a trophy with Sunderland.
“Yes, it was in the Championship, but it was a great season and it was fantastic to see so many fans celebrating promotion.
But joy soon turned to despair. Hampered by a lack of investment, Sunderland managed to break their own unwanted record – relegated with the lowest Premier League points tally.
McCarthy was sacked before the end of a desperate season and even more change was afoot that summer.
Arca decided that the time had come to leave and was weighing up interest from Spain before Middlesbrough stepped in to make him Gareth Southgate’s first signing as manager.
“It was obviously hard because I spent six years in Sunderland, but after the second relegation the club was in a bad time. We lost the chairman (Bob Murray). Niall Quinn arrived at the club trying to be chairman and manager. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
“Middlesbrough showed some interest in me. They knew that I had a clause in my contract which meant they could pay a certain amount of money and I could leave. They took advantage of that and offered to take me to the Riverside. I was hungry to play in the Premier League.”
Even with the added challenge of taking over from Steve McLaren, who had been named England manager off the back of leading Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup final, Arca felt that Southgate fared well in his first job.
“He was excellent with me, as a person and a manager. He was very down-to-earth. A nice person and good to talk to. He always had time for the players.
“Like with any job, I think you grow with experience. I think the hardest part for him was that he had to manage the players who used to play alongside him. He had to make difficult decisions to leave players out. If he was at a different team it probably would have been easier.”
After a couple of seasons of mid-table consolidation, a poor run left Middlesbrough mired in a relegation battle. They were unable to escape, bringing their 11-year stay in the Premier League to an abrupt end.
“We had players injured and somehow we started going down in the league. We found ourselves in the bottom four or five and we started feeling the nerves.
“We couldn’t get out from there and we ended up facing the consequences. It was a shame because we had some fantastic talents.”
Renowned for his patience, Steve Gibson’s decision to fire Southgate caught many by surprise, including Arca. His replacement, Gordon Strachan, made sweeping changes to no avail.
“It was strange to see Gareth Southgate leaving the club because we were near the top of the Championship, just behind Newcastle,” Arca says.
“Gordon arrived and things changed again; different style of football, different personalities, different character. He was coming from Celtic, an experienced team with older players than we had at Middlesbrough.
“Gordon decided to bring in a lot of Scottish players. Things were okay, but we didn’t do as well as we expected.”
‘I basically became one of them’
For many years, Arca had been struggling with a toe injury, which eventually became too painful to play through. Surgery and rehabilitation kept him out of action for several months, and as the recovery process dragged on with no end in sight, he decided to retire at the age of just 31.
Arca turned his attention to coaching and set about completing his badges. He also started playing for Willow Pond, a local Sunday League side, with some friends.
It was a world away from the immaculate pitches and facilities of the Premier League but demonstrated the simple joys of football.
“That was something different. It reminded me of when I was young, playing in these fields where the pitch could be any kind of shape. Sometimes you felt like you were playing on a hill,” he laughs.
“I love working people and how passionate they are for football. Even now, six years since I played Sunday League, I’m still in touch with some of the lads I played with.
“They probably thought I was an ex-Premier League footballer coming to play Sunday League – I was going to be arrogant or something. I don’t know what they thought. But obviously when they met me, I basically became one of them.
“They enjoyed playing with me and I enjoyed playing with them. It was like starting from scratch again.”
The road to Wembley
In 2015, non-League South Shields saw that Arca was still playing locally and asked if he was willing to help out. The pain in his toe had subsided to a manageable level and he had missed the rush of playing competitive matches in front of passionate crowds, so he gladly took them up on the offer.
The next three years were filled with silverware as South Shields won successive promotions and several cup competitions. The pinnacle for Arca and his team-mates was a first outing at Wembley, where they beat Cleethorpes Town 4-0 to lift the FA Vase.
“I went from playing Sunday League to playing at Wembley, that’s how crazy football is,” ays Arca, who captained the side. “It gave me a lot of excitement again.
“It was something that I wasn’t feeling for a long, long time. I started feeling those butterflies in the stomach again, getting nervous before the games.
“I think when you’re older you get more sentimental as well. I knew there wasn’t going to be another football career after that. South Shields was going to be the end. I gave 100% every game. I was running like crazy.
“We won a lot of trophies and did really well. Seeing 18,000 South Shields fans at Wembley was something hard to explain.
“When I speak with my friends here in Argentina and tell them I used to play for a semi-professional club, we reached the cup final and played at Wembley in front of 18,000 fans, they don’t believe me. They don’t believe that’s possible.”
After calling time on the second phase of his playing career, Arca and his family returned to Argentina last year. He’s currently focusing on his new business, Premier Sport Division, which helps sportspeople to relocate, transporting their lives across the world when they join new clubs, just as he had to do when moving to Sunderland 20 years ago.
Arca still harbours dreams of coaching again in the future, having enjoyed fuelling the interest of young players at the Sunderland academy and his own, and plans to return to England one day. It became his adopted home, where he was loved by three different fanbases, and the feeling is shared.
“I realised, especially in the North East of England, that fans want to see players give 100% for their team,” he says. “If things don’t go the way you want, they want to see you running and working.
“You have to make it worth what they’re paying for their tickets. They want to go home thinking, ‘Okay, we might have lost, but the lads gave 100%.’
“I realised that over time. And if, on top of that, I could provide my technical ability, that was great. That’s what happened. I was a player who gave 100% every game and the fans took that in a good way. They could see that I was working hard, and I think that’s the reputation that I have.
“It’s a mutual respect with South Shields, Middlesbrough and Sunderland fans. Having my ups and downs with the three clubs, my ambition was always to play every game as if it was my last.”
By Sean Cole