GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Mention Boca Juniors to any aficionado of the beautiful game and certain names and images immediately spring to mind: Maradona, Riquelme, Tévez, La Bombonera, the superclásico against River Plate.
The name is etched onto the soccer fabric of the New Continent.
Now try and imagine how a 13-year-old Central Floridian kid with dreams of soccer greatness must have felt when he got a call three years ago from Boca Juniors, saying they wanted him to join their youth set-up.
Step forward, Nicolas Russo, now 16.
“Boca Juniors has always been my favorite team since I was little,” Russo told MLSsoccer.com from Buenos Aires this week. “That’s the team I got to see in the United States, and I’d watch the Boca-River games and I always liked Boca.”
Russo was spotted by former Argentine player Felipe Bellini while he was playing in Florida. Bellini told Russo's father that the midfielder/right back was extremely talented and should be honing his skills at a high-level youth system.
Thanks to Bellini's links, Russo, then just 12, was offered the chance to train with Argentine second-division side Club Atlético Platense during the summers.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” explained Russo. “It was hard, it was a lot different. I didn’t know how to speak [Spanish] and it was a real challenge.”
Russo, whose grandfather was born in Argentina, had some family there to fall back on and says he picked up the basic Spanish required in just three weeks.
While in Argentina, Russo attended an open trial at Boca Juniors and was accepted into the youth system at the prestigious club. However, the club made it clear that Russo would have to stay in Buenos Aires permanently.
Russo, who played for established youth teams like Maitland Soccer Club above his age group, was on the radar of US Soccer. His father, Daniel, says there was an offer on the table to bring his son to the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which has helped develop talents such as DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan and Tim Howard.
Closer to Russo's Central Florida home, Daniel Russo told IMG that if they could give his son a full scholarship, he would attend. Despite coaches petitioning on Russo's behalf, only a 50 percent fee reduction was offered to Russo, who then decided to pursue his Boca Juniors dream. Daniel Russo points out that Boca provide young players with a place to stay, living costs and, in Russo's case, a foot operation that would have cost $11,000 back in the US.
Since moving, Russo has swiftly moved up the youth ranks at Boca and this weekend will start in the Argentine fifth division at right back against Lanfield. He believes he has really benefitted from being within a youth set-up that has provided a conveyor belt of players for teams in Europe’s most prestigious leagues.
Perhaps with that in mind, Boca have urged Russo to start paperwork to obtain an Italian passport (his paternal grandmother was born in Italy) and Russo says playing in Europe is something he readily would consider one day.
For now though, Russo is desperate to get a call-up to the US Under-17 national team.
“It would mean everything to me because it’s my country and I’d love to represent my country,” said Russo. “It’s really my dream to be on the national team.”
When Russo was called up in 2009 for a US training camp in preparation for the U-17 World Cup, the youngster had what could legitimately be described as a nightmare.
“He got a bad deal,” said Russo’s father. “He got called up when it was winter here [in Argentina], it was [below freezing]. When he got to the US, he trained the next day and it was 100 degrees there. The weather killed him, he had a fever and was in the doctor’s office more than training.”
More bad luck struck a few months later when Russo could not make the following meet-up due to a broken foot.
Russo’s latest trip back to the United States last month was much more successful. Aside from tucking into his mom’s home-cooked meals, which he misses while in Argentina, Russo trained for a month with the FC Dallas first team and with USL Pro side Orlando City.
Russo, who cites Inter Milan’s Javier Zanetti as his favorite player, particularly impressed Orlando coach Adrian Heath.
“His dad came to me and asked, 'Would I allow him to train with us to keep him fit before he went back to Boca Juniors?'” explained Heath by phone on Wednesday. “We get a lot of requests like that, but you expect him to have talent because the bottom line is, Boca Juniors are one of the biggest clubs in South America.”
Continued Heath: “He did smashing. He did probably four or five sessions and did really well. He’s obviously got good touch, good technique and is a good crosser of the ball. The good thing for Nick was that, at 16, he was playing and training with grown men and was not out of his depth.”
Russo enjoyed the training with Orlando but was especially enthralled to train with Brek Shea over at FC Dallas.
“I think he is a really great player,” said Russo. “For his size, he has a lot of great technical ability and to see him practice was really cool.”
While Russo enjoys life in Argentina, the long distance and frequent trips back and forth have put strain on his parents and two siblings and moving back home is an option that father Daniel says the family are mulling over.
For now though, Russo remains at Boca where he gets up at 6:30 a.m., takes the bus into training and fights hard for his place in the team each week. As a bonus, Russo gets a free pass to watch the Boca first team when it plays at home in La Bombonera.
“It’s amazing," enthused Russo. “It is the best experience in soccer I’ve ever seen.”
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @mexicoworldcup