This is a brilliant fictional piece from guest writer Gary. You can give him a follow on Twitter @jacbowsology
June 28th, 2023. Argentina Training Camp, near Quito.
“I never imagined that I’d play for my country, it was an honour.”
Lisandro Fleita smiles wistfully as he recalls the first time he pulled on the famous shirt of the Argentina national football team. He leans back in his chair, repositioning himself every bit as deliberately as a darting late run into the penalty box.
“It was only an exhibition match against Saudi Arabia, but for me it may as well have been a game with Brazil. Every game is important, a chance to make a mark.”
This attitude has served the 28-year-old forward well over the course of his short career. Almost discarded by his boyhood heroes, Velez Sarsfield, Fleita has gained an acute appreciation of just how fortunate he is to be still plying a trade as a professional footballer. Born in Florencio Varela in the November of 1994 to Ignacio, a civil servant, and Paulina, a housewife, the young Lisandro Fleita found himself being brought up without the comforts and luxuries that many of his counterparts in England would take for granted.
“We had little money, and what we did have my parents spent to make sure I made it as a player. I owe a lot to them. My older brother (Sergio, also a civil servant) was not so lucky, he fell out of the system aged 15, it was a sad time for us but it made me work harder to try to make it myself.”
Indeed, Fleita had to work hard to achieve his dream of playing professional football, only signing his first contract at the age of 20, such was the lateness of his development. Even then it wasn’t plain sailing for the forward. Fleita found himself on the periphery of the Velez squad, being loaned out to Heracles Almelo of the Netherlands and Argentinos Juniors back in his native Argentina with varying degrees of success.
It seemed that the young Fleita was destined for the footballing scrapheap at the age of 23, transfer listed by Velez after being deemed surplus to requirements. His asking price was only £600k.
“That was a bad time for me, I felt like a failure. I thought that if I could not make it here, in Argentina, then maybe I quit the game,” he gestures as if to wave himself off, “…forever. And then one day in the winter, everything changed.”
In the November of 2016, Fleita received a call from his agent. Someone had finally made a concrete offer to take him away from languishing in the Velez reserve team: Wolves (and later MTK Budapest) legend Rafe Shepard. There were very few roadblocks to the deal being made, Lisandro was desperate for football and Shepard was desperate for an effective foil to the club’s main man, Gary Poynton. Fleita signed for Wolves on January 1st 2017.
The first six months of playing in England saw mixed fortunes for Fleita. Wolves won the Europa League, beating Sevilla 3-2 in a pulsating final; while on a personal level Fleita struggled for form, only scoring 5 goals in his first 23 games for the club. Shepard kept faith in his new charge, however, and bought compatriot Ezequiel Romero for £6m, a deal which Fleita credits his success to.
“The boss brought in Ezequiel and it was good for the team, obviously, but it helped me to settle and gave me someone to talk to until I learned English and could mix with the whole squad. Mr Shepard also had to change the style of the team to fit all of the good players in. It worked.”
And work it did. Shepard’s change to an unorthodox 4-1-2-3 strikerless formation heralded the best scoring season Fleita has enjoyed to date, with the young forward – converted to a shadow striker – scoring 37 goals in all competitions to reward the faith shown in him by the manager and the fans. Added to the 26 and 23 goals scored by ‘strike partners’ Poynton and Ross Barkley respectively, Wolves romped home to their first top flight title in 60 years. They repeated the feat a year later, setting a Premier League record of 98 points gained from 38 games, again with the triumvirate of Fleita, Poynton and Barkley leading the charge. Many commentators and experts of the game, including Sky Sports trio Neville, Carragher and Lampard have dubbed the 2018/19 Wolves side as the most exciting team to have played in the Premier League era.
It is strange then, considering the success had by Lisandro Fleita that he has never really been awarded adequately for his talents on a level enjoyed by contemporary stars such as Nicusor Stanciu and teammate Poynton, 3 times recipient of the Ballon D’or. However, when I put this to him, Fleita laughs it off.
“ I know that I am a good player, but when you play with special ones like Poynton, Messi, Aguero, Barkley…it is maybe more difficult to stand out than Stanciu did for Milan or now with [Manchester] Utd. But it is more important to me that the team do well, winning is what we do this for, not personal glory.”
It is worth noting that Fleita really is as friendly as he seems on paper, and this translates to his on field behaviour. Lisandro has only been sent off once, for Argentinos in 2015, and collects very few yellow cards over the course of a typical season. He does the bare minimum of community work in the Midlands area, however he assures me that this is down to his lack of confidence in his English skills – he uses an interpreter for longer answers to questions – rather than a reluctance to chip in and help out.
Back to the subject of Wolves, we discuss his relationship with the two managers he’s played under in English football, Shepard and successor Andre Villas-Boas. I ask Fleita for his view on the differing styles of the two bosses, and cheekily, which one is better.
He laughs, “You know I cannot answer that! I think Mr Shepard was very different to most managers in football, he tried strange things which didn’t always work but when they did? Very exciting. Mr Villas-Boas is a little more safe [sic] with his tactics, he likes to make us keep the ball, and it was difficult to adjust when Mr Shepard left for Hungary. We won the league again after 3 years of trying, it was worth it.”
His demeanour darkens slightly upon the mention of Villas-Boas, he has been used sparingly for the past year or so, and it is clear that Fleita is not happy with the situation, only having started 3 games before Christmas and having to make do with regular appearances from the bench. I try to prod more on this subject, but Fleita flat-out refuses to say anything that could be misconstrued, so we move on to the upcoming Copa America tournament in Ecuador this coming month.
“It is going to be a strange feeling to play without Lionel [Messi, who retired from international football in 2021] on a big stage, but we have won the Copa America twice in a row so we can do it again, I think. Maybe in a way it is good for the team that we have more balance and don’t have to lean on him to do everything for us. I hope I can make a big impact.”
The Argentinians are rightly considered as favourites for the title, but tournament football can be punishing, and Brazil are always dangerous. Fleita’s point about the team having more balance may ring true, there is a real feeling of togetherness at the pre-tournament training camp; they don’t have a solitary focal point, and no name is considered much bigger than all of the others. Fleita is joined in the Copa squad by Wolves teammate Alejandro Soutullo, and Romero, who moved to PSG last summer in a £28m transfer. It is interesting to hear that the diminutive Soutullo is the prankster of the trio, with rumours abound that he even tried to steal Erik Lamela’s clothes while the Barcelona winger was otherwise indisposed in the lavatory.
I ask Fleita his opinion on the difficult group that Argentina have been handed in the upcoming tournament, having been drawn with Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay. He seems unperturbed by such a daunting fixture list,
“It is difficult, yes. But we tell ourselves in training that we must beat these teams to win the tournament anyway, so getting it over with while we can afford to lose can only be a good thing. We are one of the greatest teams in the world, we don’t fear anybody and we certainly aren’t scared of Brazil. In fact, a lot of the boys are desperate to beat them, it isn’t just football, it is national honour and pride at stake.”
Lisandro Fleita gestures defiantly and passionately as he speaks, for a fleeting moment appearing more public orator than reserved professional footballer. It is clear he feels Argentina can sweep before them all comers, and with such ferocious spirit, maybe he is finally ready to step out of the shadows and become the next world star.
Dale Williams, FourFourTwo.