Setbacks spurring on Argentina’s Calleri

For Jonathan Calleri, the first six months of 2016 were nothing if not exasperating. At the start of the year Boca Juniors decided to move him on to Brazil’s Sao Paulo, despite the player’s desire to stay in Buenos Aires. Then come the start of July, he was told he had missed out on selection for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.

And in recent weeks, that latter decision having been overturned, goals resolutely eluded him in Argentina’s warm-up games. Yet following his winning strike against Algeria on Sunday, which puts La Albiceleste back on course to qualify for the next phase should they beat Honduras on Wednesday, the No9 revealed how he had used those setbacks to drive him on.

“I think that in the end all that anger was useful,” said Calleri to, on a pent-up frustration that grew with each passed-up opportunity. Once drafted back into Julio Olarticoechea’s Olympic squad, El Vasco made Calleri his first-choice striker, only for the front-man to fail to score in three warm-up matches – including a missed penalty. Nor was he able to break his drought in the Group D opener against Portugal, which ended in a 2-0 defeat.

“It seemed like the goal was closed off. The other day against Portugal my shot hit the bar and didn’t go in,” he said, while against the Algerians “I missed an incredible chance right in front of goal”. His luck took a dramatic change for the better in the 70th minute of that encounter, however, with his team down to ten men and being held to what would have been a damaging 1-1 draw. “Fortunately these things happen in football,” he said, of his winning effort. “I went in for a challenge with the keeper, the ball bounced off my knee and went in. It’s striker’s luck.”

As a child I don’t think I could even have dreamed of this moment, of being at the Olympic Games with the Argentinian national team.

That fortunate episode of pinball that clinched a 2-1 Argentina win is not an accurate reflection of the goalscoring ability of this keen admirer of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. Still just 22, Calleri has demonstrated his nose for goal for Argentinian minnows All Boys, where he first made his name, and at two genuine South American superpowers in Boca and Sao Paulo.

With Los Xeneizes he netted 21 goals in 53 appearances, top scoring for his team with ten goals in their 2015 championship win and also contributing to their Copa Argentina victory that same year. And though he had not wished to leave Boca, he quickly underlined his quality at Sao Paulo, finishing as the competition’s nine-goal top scorer as O Tricolor Paulista reached the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores.

Such a strike rate gave Calleri every chance of Olympic selection only for his hopes to be initially dashed: his name not appearing in the 18-man squad list for Rio 2016. Included in the 35-player shortlist released by Gerardo Martino, after El Tata’s departure his replacement Olarticoechea chose to leave him out of the final selection.

In the mind of El Vasco, Sao Paulo were well-placed to reach the Libertadores final and, should that be the case, Calleri “would join the squad very late, without being able to train”. In the end, however, Atletico de Madrid’s Argentinian striker Luciano Vietto was loaned to Sevilla, who would not release him for the Games, Sao Paulo went out in the Copa semis and “we took advantage by calling him up”, said Olarticoechea to

El Vasco is a really good guy, to be honest,” said Calleri of his coach. “He called me and asked if I’d been angry not to have made the cut, and I told him that I’d obviously been very keen to be involved. I’d made a lot of choices to try and get to Rio: I moved to a Brazilian club to be closer, so the national team coach could watch me… Fortunately he called me up in the end and I’m thankful to him for that.”

So, how happy was Calleri when he heard the good news from Olarticoechea? “Extremely," said El Vasco. "I asked him if he wanted to be involved. He told me ‘I’m dying to be there’, and that’s good to hear,” continued the Argentina coach, who saw first-hand just how hungry his No9 was to make an impact. “The fact he didn’t get a goal in the three games of the warm-up tour we did was eating him up inside. He’s already started to show what the real Calleri is about.”

For a young man who, when already a professional player, travelled to Brazil to support his country at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, to be back two years later wearing the famous blue-and-white shirt is the ultimate honour. “To be experiencing this means so much,” said Calleri, as the conversation concluded.

“As a child I don’t think I could even have dreamed of this moment, of being at the Olympic Games with the Argentinian national team. To think that just four years ago I was living at home, playing for All Boys, not even in the top division. Four years! To be playing here is like a dream.”