"Thank you Lío," reads a mural in Pujato, a small town in Santa Fe Province, that venerates Argentina’s national team coach Lionel Scaloni. Their prodigal son, the 41-year-old’s temperance today is little resemblance to the "naughty" child he once was.
"Scaloni was restless, mischievous. He lived for football. He started playing when he was very young. Lionel was born with a ball, instead of a pillow he slept with a ball," says Alberto 'Beto' Gianfelici, who knew him from a very young age at the Sportivo Matienzo club in Pujato, when he played in the first team and Scaloni in the youth ranks.
Gianfelici spoke to AFP at Bar Central, a traditional brewery opposite the main square of this town of 3,700 inhabitants in a rich agricultural region some 350 kilometres north of Buenos Aires.
"Lionel was a powder keg in every way when he was a kid, playing, protesting – it was terrible. Nothing to do with what he is now. That temperance he has, you can see he picked it up from his international years. But he has the temperament and the blood," says Gianfelici.
Born on 16 May 1978, Scaloni moved 40 kilometres away from home at the age of 16, to Rosario, to try out for Newell's Old Boys, the club where he made his first-division debut in 1995.
A year later, he moved to Estudiantes de La Plata before heading to Europe to play for Deportivo La Coruña, then West Ham United, Racing Santander and Italy's Lazio and Atalanta, where he retired in 2015.
Courage to spare
Long before taking charge of the Albiceleste, Scaloni wore the Argentina shirt. He won the Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia in 1997 under José Pekerman, the coach who inspires him the most, according to 'Beto.'
For the senior national team, Scaloni later played at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, also coached by Pekerman.
In 2018, amid much debate over his limited experience as a coach, Scaloni took charge of the national team. The side has been hit by a last-16 exit at the World Cup in Russia and the departure of his predecessor, Jorge Sampaoli.
"I wasn't surprised he accepted. He always had plenty of courage, since he was a little boy. He was never afraid of challenges, so I wasn't surprised. But I was hurt by the sometimes merciless criticism, without even letting him work. One day he said to me: 'With work, it's going to work out'. Well, he wasn't wrong," says Beto.
Three years later, the Scaloneta, as it has been dubbed, has ended a 28-year title drought, lifting the Copa América 2021 in Brazil.
Scaloni likes to return to his hometown whenever he can, to visit his parents who have health problems. In the village, where everything closes at siesta time, his hobby is cycling. He lends himself freely to photos and autographs and supports the family club of his childhood.
Club Matienzo is no more than 200 metres from Bernardino Rivadavia School No. 227, where Scaloni attended primary school. His nephew goes there now. In September 2021, after the Copa América, he came to visit the school and chat with the pupils.
"He was excited. He told the kids to never forget that the most important thing is the attitude towards whatever they do: whether it's a game, sport, work or life itself," recalls María del Carmen D'Alleva, the school's headmistress.
"He has that humility that geniuses and wise people have," she enthuses as she guides AFP In the house next to the school, María Cristina Fossaroli – known as 'seño Chichita' and the language teacher of several generations of Pujatenses, including the coach himself – looks out of the window.
Chichita remembers her most famous pupil as a "naughty boy" who "if he liked something enough, did the impossible to get it."
At the age of 81, the teacher dreams of her Lionel lifting the World Cup in Qatar.
"Imagine what a bonus it would be for a son of our town to win it. Pujato is a big family, when someone is happy, we are all happy. When something happens to someone, we are all sad,” she says.
By Liliana Samuel, AFP