Maddoni is in the business of discovering the latest ‘fenomeno’, the next Messi, a new Maradona — players that quicken the pulse of the soccer-mad Argentine public.
As night falls on Club Sociale Parque on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, youngsters aged 6-12 patter up and down on concrete courts, the ball skidding between their quick-moving feet.
Parents crowd around the door of the complex waiting to pick up their children from the academy where Maddoni puts them through their paces.
Founded 70 years ago, Parque represents the heart and soul of it’s lower middle class neighborhood, the same talent factory that produced Maradona and a host of other stars of world soccer.
A 77-year-old legend among talent scouts, Maddoni is head scout at Parque and the Boca Juniors club’s childrens division.
He likes to recite the list of his “finds” — a long string of names familiar to fans of the game the world over: Carlos Tevez, Juan Riquelme, Fernando Redondo and Esteban Cambiasso are among the more than 100 stars that he has discovered and set on the path of international stardom.
Shouts go up as someone scores a goal on the concrete court.
The scout smiles, and stops his reverie to point something out about one of the young players. “You saw that other guy, the little blonde fella? He’s got something. But we have to explain to him how to stand back and play faster.”
Maddoni proudly describes his club as “a seedbed that never runs out. But still, even the most gifted have to learn.”
– Lynx eyed –
With thick-framed reading glasses that emphasize his eyes, his gray hair combed straight back, Maddoni has been an ever present figure on the sidelines of the Parque and Boca Juniors childrens’ division teams for the past 24 years. He says he was hired in person by the club’s then-president, Mauricio Macri, now Argentina’s head of state.
Parque is his home, where he is greeted each day like one of the soccer Gods he has created. Arms reach out to enfold him in a brotherly hug every step of the way into the club complex.
He pauses on the side of the concrete court, where the little long-haired boy with the orange shirt dribbles past three other boys in green shirts and thumps the ball into the net.
– School of Champions –
His work, the work of seeing a spark of talent in a youngster and turning it into a sporting gem, “saved my life, at 37, when I was suffering depression because I was going through a divorce”.
It made him quit poker and betting on horse races, and, in some way, turned him into a hunter.
What saved him was a conversation he had with the father of another Argentine star, Sergio “Checho” Batista, a member of the 1986 World Cup winning team, who convinced him to be a scout for the club.
He left his work as a meat buyer and took up coaching kids full-time, starting at Argentinos Juniors, Maradona’s first club. Then he came to Boca.
It may not have the glamor of Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy, but, by some counts, it has turned out at least 40 international stars nonetheless.
Maddoni admits he gets a kick out of watching how the raw talent he discovers can eventually be sold for stratospheric transfer fees.
“I saw (former Barcelona and Villareal star Juan) Riquelme at the age of eight. I went to Fuerte Apache for Tevez. The transfer cost 20,000 pesos ($900)!”
Former Manchester United and Juventus star Tevez has cost a total of $97 million in transfer fees in his career, and a one-year stint with Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua reportedly made him the world’s highest-paid player on a weekly salary of $899,000.
Maddoni says the secret to his success at turning up soccer gold time after time is simple: “I realize immediately if a kid is good, or not. By the way he turns, how he moves with the ball.”
Maddoni passes down a corridor where the walls are crammed with the jerseys his players have gifted him.
He drinks a coffee and returns, slowly, to the pitch. He is struggling with a cold and convalescing from a kidney operation. He is 77. But the hunter in him never gives up.