Maxi Rodriguez at Newell’s: A hero’s adios for a player stats can’t measure

In Depth
Newell's Old Boys' Maxi Rodriguez holds his shit up. Rosario, Estadio Marcelo Bielsa, December 2021.

On November 30, Maxi Rodriguez stood by the pitch as La Bombonera’s steep blue and yellow stands emptied around him. Tears moistened his eyes and his voice quivered with emotion, but he held back the tears, just.

This was almost it. He’d played one of his final matches in his 22nd and final season as a footballer. It was coming to an end as he wanted though, with the Newell’s Old Boys No.11 shirt on his back.

“It hurts because all my life I’ve played football,” he said. “I defended this badge, and I’m not going to have it anymore.” Just as significant, it’s not going to have him anymore.

Just a few days prior, the former Liverpool and Atletico Madrid player had posted a video on Instagram in which he announced that the remaining three games of the Primera Division season – versus Boca at La Bombonera, against Banfield at the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa and away to San Lorenzo – would be his last.

“The moment has arrived that I never thought would arrive,” the 40-year-old said. “It’s a difficult decision to take, but I am tranquil… I have emptied myself, I don’t have any more to give.”

The outpouring that followed was the measure of the player and the man. La Fiera, they call him – the beast. But he is a quiet and unassuming one.

Rodriguez has never been the most decorated footballer. He has four major trophies at club level across two decades. He never won any silverware in the 56 games he played in the sky blue and white of Argentina.

In an era when we are presented with tidal waves of numbers as evidence of a player’s worth, Rodriguez’s stats provide limited padding for him to fall back on.

Yet regardless of shiny pots or big numbers, Rodriguez has earned a remarkable reverence and adoration wherever he has been.

He is a throwback, to some extent; the terrace idol, the cult hero, the working-class icon. Selfless, committed, but always with that extra quality, guile and inventiveness to make things happen at the moment his team-mates and fans need him most.

After starting off at hometown club Newell’s, he took a bit of time to settle at his first European club, Espanyol. But in his third season there, he fired them to a fifth-place finish, scoring 15 goals.

That earned him a move to Atletico Madrid, where he spent his footballing peak. It was while he was there that he really flourished on the international stage, too.

There is one tournament and one moment, in particular, that will always define Rodriguez the Albiceleste hero – the 2006 World Cup and the stunning extra-time goal against Mexico.

It was a team that could and perhaps should have won the tournament. In it, Rodriguez provided the link between the industrious midfield and a dream attack of Juan Roman Riquelme, Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola, with Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Pablo Aimar waiting to come from the bench.

Yet in the round of 16, their more celebrated talent had not been on song. In the eighth minute of extra-time, Rodriguez tracked all the way back to win the ball in his own half, then stumbled and almost fell as he played it to a teenage Messi.

Messi played a one-two with Riquelme and worked it out to the other side of the pitch and left-back Juan Pablo Sorin. Sorin looked up and saw that Rodriguez had made his way from back to front before spraying a long crossfield ball.

Rather than take it down, Rodriguez chested it high into the air, inside his marker and onto his weaker left foot. Pam. Oswaldo Sanchez flung himself across the goal, but it was futile. He was as much of a spectator as you or I.

Argentina went out in the next round, losing on penalties to a Germany team to whom they were superior. But Maxi’s moment – the ultimate Rodriguez combination of grit and skill – has never been expunged. It lives on as a symbol of that team and has been replayed repeatedly in his last days as a professional.

For both country and club, it often seemed a case of work for little material reward. At the time he was there, Atletico were in their transitional, pre-superclub era and Rodriguez did not win a single trophy in his four and a half seasons.

When he moved on, he found a similar situation at Liverpool. In two and a half years, he played under Rafael Benitez, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish and suffered from the inconsistency.

Still, through it, he donated himself fully to the cause and provided moments that made him a favourite of the Kop faithful, who serenaded him with glee. There were two hat-tricks in the final few games of 2010-11 against Birmingham and Fulham. There were two goals against Chelsea in 2011-12, one in the league and one in the League Cup, which Liverpool went on to win.

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READ: Maxi Rodriguez: Liverpool cult hero & the man who made time stand still

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But by then, Dalglish had started to sideline him, favouring the left foot of Stewart Downing on the left side and paying Rodriguez the most backhanded of compliments in December 2011. “He is a real credit to himself,” Dalglish said, “and if he was a bit younger we would have someone in our squad who would be top drawer.”

Come the end of that season, almost a decade ago now, Rodriguez left. He could have stayed in Europe at the time; he had a year left on his Liverpool deal and there would have been plenty of other offers. But he decided to return to his first love, Newell’s. His club, his people.

It was a move made with heart rather than head. Newell’s had long been in the depths of despair, repeatedly struggling against relegation as a result of chronic mismanagement. Maxi made it his mission to save their fans from the pain, and save them he did.

Club hero Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino came in as coach, installing a delightful passing style. Gabriel Heinze marshalled the defence. But it was Rodriguez who lifted Newell’s to another level.

The 2012-13 season was split into two, the Torneo Inicial followed by the Torneo Final. In the Toneo Inicial, Rodriguez gave a taste of what was to come with another of his most magical, unforgettable goals, this time at the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa in front of the feverish Newell’s fans.

Yet it was in the first semester of 2013 that Rodriguez and Newell’s really peaked. They reached the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, the furthest they had been in the tournament since Marcelo Bielsa led them to the final in 1992.

And in the Torneo Final, they topped it all off, lifting a national title for the first time since 2004. Of course, it was Rodriguez who scored the single most important goal of the campaign, against Racing again, a last-minute winner in a wild 4-3 victory that put Newell’s top of the table, a lead they kept until the end.

The subsequent years were tougher and in 2017, Rodriguez left Newell’s for a second time, going to Penarol. He had fallen out with Newell’s directors, who were running the club into the ground, and was vocal about the influence of the hardcore, organised criminal, barra brava element of the fanbase, who at one point had scrawled death threats on, and shot bullets into, the walls of his grandmother’s house.

He did not make a song and dance of his departure, merely saying, through tears: “Newell’s is my home: I was born there and I will finish there.”

After winning back-to-back Uruguayan titles with Penarol, he returned in 2018 and has kept that promise, confirming himself as one of the club’s all-time heroes and highest ever goalscorers with 93 in 278 games.

No more titles have come and in 2021, Newell’s finished a disappointing 19th of 26 in the Primera. But to focus on that is to misunderstand Maxi Rodriguez. This is a man after whom the club renamed a stand while he was still playing, a man who numbers and trophies can’t explain.

As the official Newell’s account Tweeted after he announced his retirement, Rodriguez is “the symbol of the feeling of belonging.”

Amid tributes from Lionel Messi, who said it had been “an honour to share a pitch” with Rodriguez, Jordan Henderson, Luis Suarez, Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero, it was the send-off from the fans that spoke loudest.

After the 0-0 draw with Boca, Newell’s faced Banfield at home. In league terms, it was meaningless, but Newell’s fans packed the stands and sang their hearts out, especially as Rodriguez left the pitch to a volley of fireworks in the second half.

The match report in Ole read: “It was the night of Maxi and only Maxi. From early [in the day] came kids with letters of thanks, La Fiera masks, flags and, of course, their war song to show to the boy who debuted in 1999 and did not stop since that all the sacrifice was worth it. It was worth the most important thing: it was worth unconditional love.”

That is what Maxi gave them, and he more than earned it back.

By Joshua Law

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