Nicolás Miremont –
After a memorable debut season as the most recent expansion franchise together with Minnesota United, Atlanta United are apparently keen to revalidate their status of contenders by signing Ezequiel Barco from Independiente de Avellaneda. The fact that the franchise laid its attention on Argentina again is no coincidence considering Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s preference for his homeland’s talent. While the transfer to Major League Soccer is not certain – Atlético Madrid are also keen on signing the young Argentine – we felt it was time to take a closer look at the wunderkind.
Ezequiel Barco – An Exciting Promise
With a gifted right foot that speaks for him on the pitch, where actions matter much more than words, Barco receives the ball and immediately gets ten years older. The cliché of the clumsy teenager running towards the goal as if being chased does not apply to him or his style of play.
A year and a half ago Barco made his professional debut in difficult circumstances against Defensa y Justicia. With his team trailing by one goal in the unforgiving stage of the Copa Argentina, Barco, who had already impressed during the preseason, was brought on prematurely in an attempt to save the result. Thirty minutes were enough for him to display his quality, pace and awareness playing as an interior and overall had a sober performance according to what the team managed by Gabriel Milito (the Barcelona one) needed that afternoon. Unfortunately, his effort could not keep Independiente in the Copa as he was not able to alter the result that day.
The occasion was not short of emotions as Barco made any football lover’s dream come true, that of making your debut in the top tier. Without making much more fuss than the regular promising talent debut we witness almost every weekend, his qualities were evident but not even the most optimistic fan of El Rojo would have dared to imagine such present for the young man. Logically concerned about the result his team had just let escape, little did Barco know what the future had prepared for him. And even if he had known, he would not have expected it to be standing by the opposite side of the pitch. This destiny had name and surname: Ariel Holan, a manager with roots in hockey.
As a part of the winning side that day of August, neither did Holan pay special attention to Barco’s debut. Or maybe he did, but only regarding him as a threat that day, ignoring that it would be that kid who would later help him to become a continental champion managing the club he has always lived for as a passionate fan of Independiente.
After a great campaign at Defensa y Justicia, Holan was hired by Independiente following Milito’s cycle, which ended with a less than discrete record. A year and a half later, Holan has turned Barco into one of the most promising players the country has produced in the last decade. First switching him to the side, relieving him from the creator role, Barco makes use of his phenomenal speed and dribbling skills to get past defenders as if they were orange cones in a training session. As we mentioned before, his qualities don’t end there. The speedy winger is also capable of assisting his teammates from the sides, meaning an incisive attacking alternative for any team adapting the dominant role. His precision and overall judgement seem refined and probably much more mature than what we would expect from an 18-year-old trying to take the world by storm. Barco’s personality is among his best qualities if it is not the best. It is said that the best that can be done for a talent is giving him confidence. Evidently, Barco has plenty of it, and it affects his game in a significant way.
Over the course of three seasons, Ezequiel Barco has played 57 games for Independiente, scoring eight goals. It was this last month that Barco attracted more interest after his performances in the Copa Sudamericana. Crucial for Holan in said competition, Barco played 12 matches and scored three goals, including the one in the final. Apart from his goalscoring record, the player is often the one who builds the play for his teammates to finish it. By displaying this excellent run of form, Barco proved recovered from his level steppe at the beginning of the year, when he was highly questioned. Another proof of character.
Atlanta United are Challenging Europe
The transfer windows are known for being intense periods of time. Some even consider the transfer window as the most important part in a season given that it presents an opportunity, for example, for newly appointed managers to bring in players who suit his or her style of play, thus renovating the supporter’s hopes by reinventing an inherited squad. Added to the excitement is the resource factor. Given that there is no such thing as a universal club model, each institution around the world has different interests. This translates into different amounts and sources of funds, which must be optimised to efficiently compete in the transfer window according to what the team can aspire to during that period.
In Major League Soccer, Atlanta’s project is taking a much more aggressive approach at the transfer window for the second year in a row. With philanthropist Arthur Blank, Home Depot co-founder and owner of the NFL franchise Atlanta Falcons behind the wheel, Atlanta United’s pursuit of excellence was made clear from the go in 2017. With the signings of Gerardo Martino and Miguel Almirón as the club’s first ever Designated Player, Atlanta proved that the days of coping with the Europeans taking their targets to the Old Continent are over.
Back in the day, Major League Soccer was considered a peripheral league, incapable of matching the level of attractiveness Europe exhibited both through its football and its economic strength. Although the reputation of the league is still the same for the sceptical and the football conservatives, the league has grown significantly in the last decade, something which now makes a move to the US or Canada much more than a peaceful retirement.
Signing Barco would mean a new era for both Atlanta and Major League Soccer. Only three years after the league signed Seabstián Giovinco during the pinnacle of his career, changing the face of the league forever, Atlanta’s ambitious project aims to take things to a higher level by signing Europe´s almost reserved products. Even though Martino’s “discoveries” cannot be as meritorious as many claim, the project behind him is. Aspiring to greatness from day one and having the resources to achieve such thing is something that Atlanta’s board does very well, complemented by Martino’s fantastic job on the field.
Barco is not your Regular 18-year-old Boy
What were you doing at 18? Seems to be Argentine football media’s favourite question these days. They are not to be blamed. Far from detracting anything from anyone’s life efforts, this phrase is designed to create consciousness about what players like Barco manage to achieve at such young ages.
When he grabbed the ball and decided to take the penalty that would earn Independiente a goal in the Copa Sudamericana final at no other venue than the mythical Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, his appreciation by the Argentine football follower grew exponentially. Taking a penalty is no easy thing. It is not a lottery like some say, not at all. It takes calmness, decision and ultimately technique. Now and then it is also claimed that those players willing to take the responsibility, despite all the risks it supposes, have a special capability for abstracting themselves from reality. In this state, completely unconscious and guided by instinct and inertia, they finish what no other player would even dare to start.
Ezequiel Barco is not a regular 18-year-old. According to Ariel Holan, his personality is way more mature than that. Perhaps it was life itself the one that shaped him that way. We must not forget the kind of places where Latin American footballers tend to usually emerge from places where few things thrive apart from football, which is played in muddy pitches with imaginary goalposts, marked by t-shirts on the ground. This almost folkloric landscape is often the beginning of epic life stories. But only because something is epic does not mean it is smooth or pleasing to transit. Born in the province of Santa Fe, Barco left his home at 16 after being discovered by one of Independiente’s scouts. With a bag full of fear and concerns (but with a small pocket filled with hope), he moved to the club’s residential facility in Villa Domínico, a humble borough in southern Buenos Aires, right next to Avellaneda.
Apart from the astronomical amount of kicks he attracts from his opponents, his rise to stardom was filled with difficulties both coming in the form of personal and professional barriers. In the classroom, for example, Barco admitted to have struggled, even reaching the point of putting his pension at risk should he have failed to pass grade. Within dressing rooms, likewise, his experiences have been tough with the U-20 National Team managed by Claudio Úbeda, which he represented in the Sudamericano in Ecuador last year. Come the U-23 World Cup, many players in the Argentine selection (aware of the AFA crisis) refused to attend due to the volatility of the project and the risk of not even being paid. This is the case of Mauro Icardi for example. However, Barco’s experience was much more traumatic. The player decided to not attend the call-up after having allegedly being bullied by his team-mates during the Sudamericano, without much opposition from the technical staff. It is funny how the tables have turned: now Barco is worth millions of dollars, and Úbeda’s poisonous project is something everyone is trying to forget.
Today, Barco’s future is bright, he is praised by everyone, and he has very likely earned himself a transfer to a better place, with the hopes of one day returning to the club that allowed him to change his life forever.
Atlanta United – Challenging destination or the comfortable option?
Once the euphoria of the Copa Sudamericana victory diminished, many began to ask the obvious questions: “Will you [Holan] stay?!” or “What will happen with Barco?”.
It is no secret that Barco’s possible move to MLS is not the preferred one, especially in a football league used to selling their finest products to European buyers before we can even get to appreciate them enough.
Immediately after the final, the press’ attention shifted almost exclusively to Barco. Comments and opinions did not take long to appear coming from specialists and fellow professionals such as his manager, Ariel Holan. After being asked about the matter while still celebrating inside the Maracanã, he stated: “I don’t know! (resigned) What do you want me to tell you? See if you can convince him, maybe he’ll listen to you!” We think that says it all. At Independiente, many would rather keep Barco at least for an extra season – especially his manager, who advised him to wait for a European offer.
In Argentina, Major League Soccer is still considered an inferior league. Even though clubs are financially stable, fill stadiums, have no barrabrava or mafia-related problems, MLS is still an inferior, “childish” league for the unbendable Argentine and its ego.
Even though the football level might not be as high and with the lack of a challenging continental competition as its main drawback, Major League Soccer could be a great destination for Barco. Not only will he get a share of playing time at Atlanta, but will also get to face world superstars while managed by a world-class professional like Gerardo Martino.
Ezequiel Barco could set a new transfer record for Independiente. A $16 million transfer is being rumoured, which would make him even more expensive than Emiliano Rigoni ($12 million). It is hard to refuse such offer, especially for a club like Independiente who are still recovering from a terrible crisis. On December 15, Ariel Holan subtly hinted that if Barco was to stay, “he would deserve a much better contract”. A clear message to Hugo Moyano, Independiente’s president.
While everyone is talking about his future at Independiente as if it were a useful self-convincing method, the player is surprisingly convinced about his move. Right after winning the Sudamericana final, he declared that “the only thing left is my signature”. He even spoke about Martino and his future teammate, fellow Argentine Leandro González-Pírez.
Evidently, not everyone is happy with Barco’s move. While some consider it a significant step in the player’s career, other think it is a suicidal move for him, just like Almirón’s. Sooner rather than later the perception of the world will have to change towards MLS. The league is not the same anymore and anyone still trying to classify it as an amateur league is only trying to be right based on false or inexistent arguments. Football has changed, and a move to an inferior league does not exclusively mean a retirement. In times of globalisation, there is no such thing as “inferior football”. Perhaps more or less refined, depending on the place, but the quality of a player has never dropped merely for moving to a country with less football culture. Paulinho’s journey is a more than suitable example. A move to an inferior league often means playing time and exposure. Some players still prefer that to sitting on a bench in Spain or England until they get sent home again, and I consider that a great decision.
Could Atlanta miss out on Barco?
As this is being written, information about a possible offer coming from Atlético de Madrid has just been published. Apparently, the Spanish club are interested in the young player’s services.
Considering the declared enthusiasm of the player and the instance of the negotiations with Atlanta United, it will be hard for Atlético to spoil this. Nevertheless, the possibility is still there, but it looks that no matter what any club offers, it is up to Barco’s personal decision.
Nicolás Miremont is a born and raised Boca Juniors fan, but his heart has a special place for Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev. Miremont loves to support the underdogs. Miremont enjoys watching smaller competitions especially those from Eastern Europe, but also his native Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @Miremont_Nico