Football in South America, more than anywhere else in the world, is shrouded in myth and fable. It is a rich tapestry of hearsay and folklore; a sport discussed more in the vernacular of the supernatural than analysed as a science.
And embroidered into that story are numerous mystical figures, ascribed abilities that cannot necessarily be explained using reason or logic.
Jorge Griffa, though not widely known outside Argentina, is one such character. And before we get to what exactly this has to do with new Tottenham signing Giovani Lo Celso and his manager Mauricio Pochettino, please do bear with me.
A defender during his playing career, Griffa spent a decade with Atlético Madrid after making his name at Rosario-based club Newell’s Old Boys. He was hugely successful in Spain, winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1962, La Liga in 1966, as well as three Copa Del Reys.
Yet the legend of Griffa is built not around what he did on the pitch. After hanging up his boots, he returned to Newell’s Old Boys to become a youth coach. And it is from there that his myth has grown.
Under his watch, La Lepra’s production line did not stop churning out excellent footballers. Through came Jorge Valdano, Américo Gallego, Gabriel Batistuta, Gerardo Martino, Maxi Rodríguez, Walter Samuel and Gabriel Heinze, among many others.
Then Griffa moved to Boca Juniors and the magic kept happening. Nicolás Burdisso, Éver Banega, Fernando Gago and Carlos Tévez were moulded in his hands.
After returning to Rosario, it was he who knocked on the door of the Messi household to convince young Lionel’s parents that their son should sign for Newell’s.
Jorge Griffa has an eye for talent.
And this season, that eye will be firmly fixed on the white half of north London. For there, he will find two more of his own. One in the dugout and, with the arrival of Giovani Lo Celso, another on the pitch.
The story of how Mauricio Pochettino was discovered has been much repeated since Marcelo Bielsa arrived at Leeds a year ago, always with Bielsa as the protagonist.
For those who have not heard it: on a scouting mission and the Argentine countryside, Bielsa and another Newell’s coach turned up at a 14-year-old Pochettino’s house at 2 a.m. asking Mr. and Mrs. Pochettino to see their son.
They were taken to cast their eyes over the sleeping Mauricio and, after one look at his legs, the coaches decided that he was a future star and took him to Newell’s.
The man with Bielsa that night? Griffa, of course.
Two decades later, with Griffa having given his name to his own youth football club in Rosario – the Asociación Atlética Jorge Griffa – the same man found another player to add to the glittering list.
A left-footed midfielder with wonderful balance and a silky first touch, it was clear, just like it had been with Pochettino, that the boy they called ‘Monito’ – ‘little monkey’, a nickname bestowed upon him by his father Juan – had something special.
After two years with Griffa’s academy side, Lo Celso was ready to sign for a big local club. Unlike Pochettino, though, Lo Celso did not go to Griffa’s beloved Newell’s. He was a fan of their bitter rivals, Rosario Central, and he followed his dream to play in their yellow and blue strip.
He went on to make his debut for El Canalla five years later and within a few months been bestowed the title of the “ruby of Argentine football” by the influential El Gráfico magazine. Inside a year, he had been whisked off to Paris Saint-Germain.
Despite the pair falling on either side of their city’s club divide, Pochettino has long seen Lo Celso as a central part of Tottenham’s future and, according to reports from Argentina, his decision to remain as Spurs manager this summer rested on Daniel Levy signing the 23-year-old.
Now, the men from Rosario have been reunited in north London and are seeking to push Tottenham on to new heights this term.
A quick look at what Lo Celso did in the summer, when he joined up with Argentina for the Copa América, shows us why, beyond the obvious bond of their respective pasts, Pochettino was so determined to get his man.
As mentioned, the young Argentine international has excellent technique. He is happy to receive the ball under pressure, he’s a dynamic dribbler and likes to drive the team forward with quick one-twos. He can press hard when his side is out of possession, too.
To add to all that – and crucial to the desire to sign him – Lo Celso is versatile. Over seven games with La Albiceleste, six at the Copa and one warm-up friendly, he played three different roles.
In the 5-0 win over Nicaragua and 2-0 defeat to Colombia, he played on the right of a midfield four. In the 1-1 draw with Paraguay, he came into the central pairing. In the rest of the games, head coach Lionel Scaloni deployed him on the left of a midfield diamond.
He did not start in the quarter or semi-finals, making way for the superior lung power of Marcos Acuña. But in both games, he came on around the 65-minute mark, looking to use his skill and vision to exploit the spaces that open up late on. Against Venezuela in the quarter-final, he scored. And his introduction against Brazil drastically improved the movement of the ball through the central areas.
For the third-place playoff against Chile, Lo Celso was reintroduced to the first team – suggesting Scaloni sees him as part of the long-term solution for an Argentina side that has struggled in recent years – and he provided an assist for Paulo Dybala’s goal.
For Real Betis last season, he showed yet more flexibility, mostly playing off the striker in Quique Setien’s 3-4-2-1 system and sometimes even filling in at No.9. With this extra freedom, he notched an impressive 16 goals and 6 assists in 45 games.
Griffa clearly versed Lo Celso in tactical awareness just as well as he did Pochettino.
According to Lo Celso himself, he is happy to be deployed in whatever way the coach sees fit. “I have always remained humble in order to grow,” he told Spanish paper AS last year.
“I intend to maintain that trajectory because it is inculcated in me. It is my family that gave me this. One of the things they told me was to always have my feet on the ground.”
Towards the end of last season, Pochettino increasingly sent out his team with a midfield diamond, in addition to employing the 3-man defence and 4-2-3-1 formations he has always used at Spurs.
Lo Celso, then, is not a direct replacement for Christian Eriksen – nobody could replicate the prolific chance creation of the Dane. Instead, he is part of a new era; Pochettino’s Tottenham 3.0.
Just a word of warning to the Tottenham players, coaches and staff: don’t get caught between Lo Celso and Pochettino on the morning of Monday September 16. Rosario will have played Newell’s the evening before and whoever wins will be sure to make the other side suffer.