The making of
by Sam Lee
"He had confidence that I had the ability to play football, so he was focused on me since I was a kid. It’s thanks to that I’m here now."
It may not come as a surprise to read that Aguero, from the sprawling suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina, grew up in poverty.
Indeed, the most remarkable thing about his journey is not that tremendous sacrifices were made along the way, but that he was even born in the first place.
Aguero’s father, Leonel Del Castillo, and his mother, Adriana Aguero, were 17 and 19 respectively and had already had their first child, Jessica, when they moved 800 miles from their family homes in Tucumán to the Argentine capital. They went in search of a new life and new opportunities, but all they were immediately able to get their hands on was a plot of land owned by Leonel’s step-brother, 50 metres from the polluted Las Viboras (the Vipers) river in the run-down Gonzalez Catan district.
Leonel, a talented footballer himself, used what little materials he could get his hands on to build the family home from scratch. He had just about enough bricks - although the top few layers had to be stacked on their thinner ends to make the house taller - and he laid the roof, a sheet of metal, over the top. The toilet was a partially covered hole in the ground outside and there was no running water, meaning Adriana, accompanied by Jessica, would have to walk 100 metres to fill up two 20-litre containers.
The home was near a potrero, the improvised football pitches which would shape Sergio’s entire life, and Leonel was handy enough for clubs to pay for his services during weekend tournaments.
Those games, combined with other odd-jobs around the area, were just about enough to provide a basic income for the family, but those resources were soon stretched even further when they discovered Adriana was already pregnant with their second child by the time they had left Tucumán.
What followed was a string of events that would put Adriana and her unborn child at great risk.
In March of 1988, heavy storms in the Buenos Aires area caused the polluted river that ran past the makeshift Aguero-Del Castillo home to burst its banks. The family rode out an initial flood - despite knee-high water inside the house - by balancing furniture and the bed that held Adriana and Jessica on trestles.
Two weeks later the storms returned, and despite their fears that the empty house would be looted, the young family had no choice but to be evacuated when water levels reached up to a metre. Twenty-four people were killed and 57,000 others, including the Aguero-Del Castillos, were moved to safety as a result of the floods.
Like thousands of fellow evacuees, Leonel, Adriana and Jessica spent two weeks sleeping on mattresses on the floor of a religious school before they were allowed to return home. It had indeed been looted.
Almost as soon as life was getting back to normal, Adriana’s waters broke, six and a half months into her pregnancy. The local hospital was ill-equipped to deal with such scenarios, meaning an arduous three-hour journey into the Buenos Aires.
After taking two buses and a train, nurses at the Hospital Pinero informed Adriana that she should try to elongate the pregnancy for as long as possible by resting on the maternity ward. Having initially expected to stay for a matter of days, Adriana was laid up in bed for the best part of two months, with no other patients for company and just an empty courtyard to look at from her window.
Leonel, balancing work, football and looking after Jessica, visited often, but Adriana spent most of those two months crying and alone. Not even allowed to walk around her own room, she spent much of her time speaking to nurses and reading maternity magazines, making her something of an expert on delivery methods and new-born babies.
Having celebrated her 18th birthday while in hospital, she was discharged two weeks before her original due date. Within days, she went into labour and had to repeat the three-hour journey back, this time walking the final 300 metres up a steep hill and a flight of stairs.
Almost as soon as she was given a bed, a doctor informed her that the baby was stuck and she would be unable to give birth unless action was taken. He suggested forceps be used to change its position but, having read the maternity books and spoken to other mothers during her earlier time on the ward, Adriana refused; she believed the babies looked crushed. She was informed the only alternative was to perform an episiotomy on her and to fracture her child’s collarbone. After being reassured the baby would suffer no lasting damage, she decided to go with the latter, considerably more painful, approach.
Moments later Sergio Leonel Aguero was born.
How right he was.
The boy’s early years are full of coincidences and quirks of fate which made a career at the top level seem inevitable. For one, whenever his family were forced to move home after his birth (first due to burglary, then due to extortion), they would always end up next to a potrero, the pitches which would make an indelible mark on the life of their son.
It was at Sergio’s second home, in Florencio Varela, where he first experienced life on the potrero, accompanying Leonel to his matches, and as a toddler even picking up the colourful language you may expect to hear in the heat of the battle.
It was also in Florencio Varela where his famous nickname was bestowed upon him. Leonel had managed to scrape together enough money for a 14” television, and though it needed an aerial made out of a potato and two knitting needles to pick up any channels, it did at least allow Sergio to watch endless repeats of ‘Wanpaku Omukashi Kumu Kumu’, a Japanese cartoon about a Stone Age family whose son would run amok around the local mountains and forests. The youngster was captivated, perhaps ensuring his first attempts to form words sounded like ‘koo’ or ‘kum’. It was a neighbour, Jorge Chetti, one of the Aguero-Del Castillos’ first friends in Buenos Aires, who insists he was the first to call the boy ‘Kun’.
Though the Chettis were left behind when the family moved to Los Eucaliptus, the nickname stuck, and the new potrero, with a corner flag exactly one metre from the front door, began to shape Kun’s life.
Indeed, it was at around five years old that Sergio started playing football for money, just like his father. Although the prize pot amounted to just one peso, the youngster soon realised he was good enough to take the lot, either by scoring the necessary eight goals, or by beating older boys in penalty competitions thanks to his already powerful shot. The little cartons of juice he would buy with the winnings were enough to drag him away from ‘Kumu Kumu’ and Dragon Ball Z on the TV.
And it was while he was with Leonel at tournaments on the potrero that he first secured opportunities to join a club. Twice during impromptu games with friends on the sidelines he was spotted by youth scouts and signed up.
It was under the guidance of Jorge ‘the Baker’ Ariza, coincidentally the man who had made the cake for his fourth birthday, that he took his first serious steps towards a career in the game, with Primero de Mayo.
For the next few years he would play anywhere between four and six games for various different clubs at weekends, meaning Leonel had to make the difficult decision to give up his own profitable career at the age of 27.
“My father made a lot of sacrifices,” Aguero says. “I was only six or seven years old and he dedicated himself to taking me to the clubs and different areas until I went to Independiente at the age of eight.
“He always accompanied me, and obviously I’m extremely grateful to him. There are a lot of kids who have to go on their own and in the end they have to stop because these places are far away."
Sergio quickly made a name for himself around some of the most prestigious youth leagues and competitions in Argentina; scoring four, five or six goals in one short game became a regular occurrence, but his infectious smile ensured even the parents of the boys he was outshining, on his own team or the opposition’s, were won over.
Short and stocky yet still incredibly quick, Kun would win games by himself, dribbling past countless opponents before finding the perfect finish. Coaches also noticed that from an early age he was shrewd - and confident - enough to order his team-mates around. Backed up by his partner in crime up front, Cristian Formiga, and goalkeeper Emiliano Molina, who boasted an incredibly long goal kick, Aguero’s teams rarely lost.
Not that he admits to ever allowing himself to dream too big: “I just thought about playing football. I would watch TV and see Primera teams and the only thing I said was ‘I want to be there’. Nothing more. I didn’t think about Europe, about any big club. I could never imagine it, I just wanted to play and make it at a team in the Argentine Primera Division.”
He could have realised that dream for any club in the country. Lanus and Quilmes missed out because the Aguero-Del Castillos, who by that point had seven children, could not afford to become club members, a mandatory part of negotiations.
It seems like fate that he ended up at Independiente. El Rojo allowed youngsters to play for their youth teams without becoming a member, and while Leonel felt offers from clubs including Boca Juniors and River Plate were not in the family’s interests, a prominent Argentine businessman, who had already invested in one Independiente prospect, was alerted to Kun’s talents.
Samuel Liberman and his lawyer, Jose Maria Astarloa, had already acquired a stake in a 17-year-old Diego Forlan and were persuaded to take a chance on a boy who had yet to turn 10.
The doctor back at the Hospital Pinero was being proven right; the family were already benefiting from their first son’s talents; in exchange for 100% of Sergio’s economic rights for the next 10 years, Liberman bought the Aguero-Del Castillos an improved house, got Sergio into a private school, supplied clothes and food and provided regular monthly payments.
His early years at Independiente were not always easy - only the dedication of several youth coaches, and Leonel’s part-time job as a kit-man, ensured he did not drift away during petty boardroom squabbling – but it was not long before he got a chance to play at the home of the first team, the Doble Visera stadium.
His age group were put up against the club’s fierce rivals, Racing Club, as the warm-up act ahead of an all-star charity match, and once again he took centre stage; he won and converted a penalty to give his side a 1-0 victory.
Sergio was just 11 years old but already he had taken huge strides towards realising his dream of playing in the Primera Division - and at a younger age than anybody in history.
Part two coming soon.