Milton Casco: From zero to hero at River Plate

Tom Nash charts Milton Casco’s rise from figure of ridicule to fan favourite at the Monumental…

On Sunday evening 66,000 delirious River Plate fans chanted the name of their left-back after his impressive display in a comprehensive 2-0 win over league leaders Racing. They later voted him man of the match. 

That in itself may not seem remarkable, but Milton Casco’s journey to this point was unthinkable even as recently as six months ago.

The full-back joined River in 2015, having been part of Newell’s “class of 2013” alongside players like Nacho Scocco, Maxi Rodríguez, and Pablo Pérez. Tata Martino guided them to the league title that year. 

During his early years in Buenos Aires, his role was mainly to act as cover for fans’ favourites Lionel Vangioni and Gabriel Mercado during the team’s triumphant 2015 Copa Libertadores campaign. However, when Vangioni took the chance to join AC Milan in 2016, Casco found himself occupying the left-back role permanently.

He immediately received criticism from River’s notoriously demanding fans, who perceived him as the weak link in an ailing defence. They considered him poor at marking, and unable to balance his runs up the pitch with the responsibility of covering his area when opponents attacked.

During 2016/17 the side conceded a lot of goals which originated from his left side of the back line, and every time the transfer window reopened, Millonario fans would take to social media pleading for the club to make an attempt to repatriate departed idol Lionel Vangioni. Argentine fans love nothing more than a returning icon. 

His return did seem feasible a couple of times, but club President Rodolfo D’Onofrio stood firm on a core principal- the club would not pay a transfer fee to bring back players who had left for free once their contracts expired. Vangioni fell into this category sadly for the River supporters desperate to see him back in Buneos Aires. 

Casco kept his place at full-back in early 2017 as River unsuccessfully tried to chase down a nine-point deficit on leaders Boca Juniors. In August that year, there was a surprise arrival – a young Uruguayan called Marcelo Saracchi. 

The 19-year-old was brought across the estuary as a prospect for the future, but turned out to be so comfortable playing before a packed Monumental stadium that he immediately became Marcelo Gallardo’s first-choice left-back. Casco was again consigned to the bench.

An unfortunate injury to Saracchi at a key point of the Copa Libertadores meant that Casco regained the full-back slot for the fateful semi-final that year, which River calamitously threw away 4-3 against Lanús.

In June 2018, less than a year after Saracchi had joined River, his performances had been noticed in Europe. RB Leipzig decided to pay €11m to take the ex-Danubio man to the Bundesliga, and River were in a familiar situation. Casco was destined to be reinstated as left-back but the fans were begging for Vangioni to return or for Gallardo to bring in another experienced player, firm in their belief that Casco was not the man to lead them to another Libertadores crown.

Gallardo ignored the fans’ judgement and decided to put faith in Casco ahead of the upcoming knockout phase of the Copa Libertadores, much to their discontent. This was not the first or last time the legendary coach put faith in a player the fans mistrusted. 

Bit by bit, Gallardo was proven right, just as he had been about Pity Martinez the previous year. First Casco made some satisfactory displays that calmed the level of criticism coming from the stands, and then he slowly started to gain confidence and offer River a serious threat down the left wing.

Playing the full-back role for Marcelo Gallardo’s River side is one of the most complex positions. The manager insists on these players participating in every attack offering width down the sides of the pitch, whilst at the same time not leaving gaps for the opposition to exploit. By the latter stages of 2018, Casco had mastered the role very well. 

When the club reached the historic Copa Libertadores final vs Boca in November, he was undisputedly their best left-back, and proceeded to write his name into a very special page of the team’s history with that iconic win in Madrid to secure the Copa.

When the January transfer window opened this year, all mentions of Vangioni, Saracchi, or any other left-back had vanished from social media – the one true sign that fans were finally happy with his performances. In fact, during December and January, Millonario supporters started a hashtag #PerdonMilton where they publically apologized on social media for not believing in Casco, and thanked him for his part in River’s success. 

Against all odds, Milton Casco secured his place amongst an elite group of players who started both legs of the River’s Libertadores “Super final” against Boca. Despite the years of criticism, memes, and jokes aimed his way, he took hold of the left side of defence in style, offering solid marking off the ball and becoming an outlet in attack. At the time of writing, he is one of the best left-backs in Argentina and one of River’s star performers in the early weeks of 2019.

His is one of the great stories of vindication of modern times in Argentine football.

Tom Nash is an avid River follower living in Buenos Aires who runs the @Carp_English twitter account

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