They say never meet your idols and in Argentinian football they don’t come much bigger than Juan Román Riquelme. Yet for Argentinos Juniors’ Damián Batallini not only did he meet the iconic number ten, he lived in the same neighbourhood and when Riquelme opted to end his career back where it began in La Paternal the childhood hero became a club-mate.
The 17-year-old Batallini was still playing for the club’s youth sides in 2014 but it still meant travelling to the training ground in Bajo Flores with the Boca legend.
“Riquelme is my idol and that of my brothers and all my family. We live in same neighbourhood and it’s amazing to have an idol with whom I have trained, eaten asados, travelled with. It is something that will stay with me for my entire life.”
Growing up and living in the town of Don Torcuato, 30 kilometres or so north of Buenos Aires, in the district of Tigre, Batallini has been a neighbour of Riquelme his entire life and with a Boca supporting family, the now 23-year-old was only ever going to have one childhood hero. Like the three-time Copa Libertadores winner, Batallini began his professional career at Argentinos Juniors but in the case of tricky winger it was this move that dampened his love of the blue and gold.
“The old man was a Boca fan and when you’re a kid, your dad makes you follow the same as him. As I got older and I was watching more football I lost that fanaticism, now I’m an Argentinos supporter because it’s the club that helped me every day and puts food on the table.”
The question of support is one that has come up increasingly over the past few months given reported interest from not just Boca but rivals River Plate and fellow grandes Independiente and Racing Club. And with some justification as Batallini played a key role in Argentinos Juniors’ somewhat surprising Superliga title challenge and helped book the Bichos back in the Copa Libertadores.
“Obviously it’s important that your name is mentioned with various clubs, more so big clubs or clubs from abroad. It’s a source of pride and something special because it recognises the effort you make and tells you that you’re on the right track. I hope that what comes is the best for me and the club but obviously I have to keep working.
“The truth is that my dream move would be to make the jump to Europe and to wear the sky blue and white [the national team] shirt. It’s mine and my family’s dream.”
Having watched former teammates Nicolás González and Alexis Mac Allister both make that step to VfB Stuttgart and Brighton respectively and since earn Argentina call-ups, the examples are there for Batallini.
“I talk lots to Alexis [Mac Allister] and Nico [González]. They are clearly great players who are taking their first steps in Europe and it makes me very happy because they are teammates and friends.
“Them being in the national team also motivates me because it allows me to see that I’m not so far off being able to achieve it. I try to train and focus on what I want to try and achieve that dream which is to play in Europe and go to the selección. I hope that some day I manage that and in the meantime I give absolutely everything.”
And while both players are very much on the radar of Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, it is Batallini who has arguably had as much of an influence on Argentinos Juniors’ upturn. Leading the Superliga over the Christmas break only a drop off at the start of 2020 eventually saw River Plate and Boca Juniors reel in Diego Dabove’s side.
“We made a huge effort and obviously we were dreaming of winning the Superliga title but we did a great job.
“Until recently Argentinos were down fighting against relegation and today fighting for the title with Boca and River. It’s something we deserved and as a reward for that effort we qualified for the Libertadores.It’s important for all that is to come that we always try in training, give it everything in every match and obviously follow the ideas of Diego Dabove.”
It’s certainly a more positive atmosphere around the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona now and in a relatively short professional career Batallini has seen the club relegated, promoted and battle away near the foot of the promedio table before climbing to the heights of Copa Libertadores qualification once more.
“When I got into the first team (debuting against Tigre in February 2016) the club wasn’t in a good place and was fighting relegation. I had the opportunity to play at a really young age and after that season when we were relegated it was very tough because they were my first steps, I was very young and I loved the club so much.
“It was a tremendous blow and obviously we had to get back up to the Primera quickly something we were able to do the following year with [Gabriel] Gringo Heinze. Obviously there was bitterness about relegation but after the effort of gaining promotion we enjoyed it a lot.”
The experience no doubt stood Batallini in good stead and the opportunity while in the Nacional B to work under former Argentina defender Gabriel Heinze was a key moment for both the player and the club.
“Heinze helped us a huge amount and is a great coach. He has a big future. He is a coach that demands a lot every day, you always have to be 100%.
“Obviously he helped the younger players enormously and we were very grateful because he was always there for us and taught us lots drawing on his long career in Europe.”
The departure of Heinze upon sealing the return to the top flight was a set-back, further emphasised by the success that the 42-year-old subsequently transferred to Vélez, and another relegation looked a possibility for Argentinos Juniors until Diego Dabove’s appointment in January 2019.
An immediate upturn in form allayed fears and shot the Bichos up the table, while enabling Batallini to work with another of Argentina’s promising coaches.
“Diego [Dabove] is another great coach and came in from doing really well at Godoy Cruz. In truth he arrived at Argentinos at a difficult time and he put us back on track.
“He’s also a demanding coach but also a great person. Diego has a bright future. He started out as a coach not so long ago and he’s doing things very well to have a bright future among football’s elite.”
Dabove’s success over the past year has been built on a blend of experience and youth with the club’s fine academy providing not only Batallini but also the likes of Fausto Vera and the Mac Allister brothers to name a few.
This same prolific factory line produced not only Riquelme but Diego Maradona, Sergio Batista, Fernando Redondo, Juan Pablo Sorón and Esteban Cambiasso. Their names and countless others adorn a monument at the club’s training ground to serve as a reminder to the next generation trying to emerge from the Semillero (seed garden).
“Argentinos is a club that really helps the boys in the academy, it puts great importance on the person in addition to the football. Always trying to grow the boy as a good player and a good person,” Batallini explains.
“They always try and help in every way. It is a family and I think that a lot of kids want to be there because there are so many talented coaches and teachers.”
Those academy graduates already named are fine examples but big shoes to fill for any young player and for Batallini wearing the number ten shirt previously worn by Maradona and Riquelme, that weight is even more profound.
“Wearing that shirt is important to me, it has been worn by so many big players, so many phenomenons, so it is something amazing, and fills me with pride to carry it myself. I try to take care of it and give it my best in every match.”
Batallini’s confidence and sense of responsibility has been nurtured not only by Argentinos Juniors but by his family. Grandfather Domingo played for Platense, father Alberto is the all-time leading scorer for Colegiales and older brothers Pablo and Martín both came through at Defensores de Belgrano.
“Yes, the truth is my family is a real football family and with my grandfather, my old man, my uncle and my older brothers who all play it was impossible not to play football growing up.
“It was my dream as a child, I always slept with a ball, when I was 5 years old I always had the ball next to me. I wasn’t obligated to do anything it was just something that I always wanted to do. Since I was a boy I enjoyed playing with friends, later in neighbourhood clubs and then at Argentinos. For me football is my life and my passion so I always loved it. Hopefully I can continue to enjoy it for many more years because it is part of my life and that of my whole family too.”
While the support of such a family set Batallini on the path, it wasn’t until the youngster found his second home at Argentinos Juniors that things clicked into place. And with the recent talk of interest from Argentina’s grandes, there is one club more than others that may feel they let one slip through the net.
“I was at River [Plate], I was very young, but as it was River I wanted to go. It wasn’t too far and moving from a team in the B [Deportivo Armenio] to River was significant but I didn’t feel very comfortable within the squad.
“So I decided not to go anymore and then went to Argentinos Juniors where I felt really good and from day one they helped me a lot.”
That is not to say that the switch to Argentinos wasn’t without sacrifice. Batallini’s brothers convinced their younger sibling to give the Bichos a try and despite having to leave the family home at 5am to take three buses across Buenos Aires, it proved a wise decision.
“It was a very long journey, two and a bit hours of travel. A real effort but an effort that allowed me to fulfil my dream of playing in the first team. Thank God I did it.”
The dream of playing first team football accomplished, Batallini now looks even further ahead and his form over the past year has certainly justified that. At present, like the majority of players around the world, the 23-year-old is confined to home workouts and online sessions with the squad four times a week via Zoom but Batallini remains focused on what is to come.
“My agent always has contact with the big clubs who ask about my situation but honestly today my dream would be to go and play in Europe. That is what I want now. I always strive to achieve my dream of playing abroad so I give it my best.
“Obviously a move to one of the grandes would also be an important step but personally my preference is to go and play in Europe. There are always talks but obviously we would need to reach an agreement with the clubs and with me.”
As Argentina remains one of football’s biggest exporters the options overseas are vast and as a student of the game Batallini sees advantages across the globe.
“The truth is that I watch a lot of football, whatever the game is. I try to watch, whether it is Mexico, Europe or the MLS there is always something important in order to learn from what a lot of the great players do. Later I try and translate that out on the pitch.”
Whatever lies ahead post-pandemic for Batallini a 2021 Copa Libertadores debut promises further opportunities and the advice of Riquelme still drives the fleet-footed wideman.
“The advice he [Román] game me was always to give 100%, to never let my head drop and to keep going straight ahead to fulfil my dreams.”