There are few more popular and iconic figures currently playing in Argentina than Atlético Tucumán’s barrel-chested maestro Luis Miguel Rodríguez. One the brink of the most historic few weeks in the club’s history, the outstanding Jimmy Lee returns to take tell the tale of the Flea.
The ideal modern footballer is built similar to Michelangelo’s “David” – a perfect human specimen. No one exemplifies this more than Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese international may be one of the most perfectly built footballers, or better said, human beings, alive on the planet. While that is the ideal, the majority of footballers fall short of Ronaldo’s perfection but are still closer on the scale to Ronaldo than to Homer Simpson. Which is what makes the accomplishments of Atlético Tucumán’s main goal scorer even more impressive.
Luis Miguel Rodríguez, better known as El Pulga or Pulguita, was born in the small town of Simoca, Tucumán, about an hour south of the capital city of San Miguel de Tucumán. Luis grew up in a poor home, but just like most young Argentine boys, he loved to play football. He would often play barefoot because he was worried about destroying his shoes and not having anything to wear to school the next day.
As a 12-year-old boy, young Luis scored a record 12 goals in a single match for his hometown club, Union Simoca, in the Liga Tucumana. From that moment on, it was clear his destiny was to play football.
As a teenager, El Pulga, who was the oldest of nine siblings, was required to help his father work so they could put food on the table for their family. He dreamed that someday his football abilities could help provide for his struggling family. Luis commented on his life growing up, “[My father] had to provide for 11 people in our small town where there was not a lot of work. We never missed a meal, but we had very few clothes. I never had football boots… I slept in the same bedroom with five siblings.”
➡Los 5 mejores goles del pulga Rodriguez con la camiseta de @ATOficial, picandosela con vaselina sobre el arquero👏.
— Encuestas Decanas (@EncuestasDknas) September 15, 2018
If you showed a picture of Luis Rodríguez to most people and asked them what they believed he did for a career, very few, if any, would guess he played football professionally. Even fewer would believe him to be the leading goal scorer on a club that is near the top of the table in the first division of Argentine football. As Argentinian football journalist Peter Coates put it, “You can imagine him at an Asado with a glass of Fernet.”
From humble beginnings, El Pulga has come a long way.
Luis Rodriguez has become somewhat of a folk hero in Argentine football. But long before he was scoring goals for El Decano in the Superliga and staring in the Copa Libertadores, he was playing in local matches trying to earn money to feed his family.
“They paid me 70 pesos to play three matches a weekend. You had to be crazy or very desperate to play in those matches. The fields had barbed wire and if you got near it, the defenders would throw you into the fence. And you couldn’t try and show off, if you did, the defenders would destroy you. We played without shin guards or anything and they attacked directly at the bone. But I don’t regret any of it. It allowed us to eat, and now that I’m in the first division, when defenders come at me, I laugh. With the life I’ve had, nothing scares me.”
Maybe that is why Luis has been able to help his club on four separate occasions gain promotion (once with Racing de Córdoba and three times with Atlético Tucumán). No matter how daunting the situation, El Pulga faces it – no situation is too much for him. When Atlético Tucumán qualified for their first ever Copa Libertadores, many assumed they would compete, but struggle to make it out of their group. When they qualified for the next round and were drawn against past champions, Atlético Nacional from Colombia, El Decano’s luck surely was over.
Just three years ago in 2015, Atlético Tucumán were playing in Argentina’s Primera B Nacional. Now they had a chance to qualify for the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores. On rare occasions can an entire team take on the attitude of a single player, but El Decano embraced Rodríguez’s no fear attitude as they traveled to Medellín for the second leg of the Libertadores. Holding a 2-0 lead after the first leg, the club from Tucumán conceded a 12th minute goal, but never again faltered and won the tie 2-1 on aggregate.
Atlético Tucumán will now host last year’s Libertadores champions Grêmio. Once again, most will be picking against El Decano.
The 33-year-old Luis Rodríguez is already one of the greatest idols in the history of the club. The hat-trick he scored on Friday night against Tigre is one that every fan who witnessed it will never forget. One day, a mural, or a statue, will be made in his honor, or one of the grandstands will be named after him, or maybe they’ll all together rename the stadium. There is little more that El Pulga can do at this point to endear himself to the Atlético Tucumán fans any more than he already has. But leading El Decano to a semi-final in South America’s most important tournament would certainly help improve the lure that already exist for El Pulga.
At the end of each match, Luis Rodríguez can often be seen wearing his own personally branded ‘PR7’ hats. For a man that physically looks absolutely nothing like Cristiano Ronaldo, to wear a hat invoking the nickname of one of the greatest footballers on the planet both extraordinary and hilarious.
He looks like your average, normal, everyday, run of the mill man. But on Friday night in Tucumán, the fans literally bowed to him and sang his praises. He may not be Cristiano Ronaldo, but to those who cheer for Atlético Tucuman, he is their beloved hero.
Jimmy lived in Córdoba, Argentina as a teenager and is still an active Socio for his beloved club, Belgrano. He currently lives in Seattle, WA and loves to write about football when he has a break from work and family. He also runs the Belgrano – English twitter account.