Manchester United's Marcos Rojo returns 'home' to Estudiantes hoping to get back on the radar

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - When top-level footballers go to the away end of a stadium with their own fans, they usually put their hoods up so that they won’t be recognised by too many people. There are exceptions.

Sheffield United’s Oli McBurnie went in the away section of his former club Swansea City for their recent derby against Cardiff City. Wearing a gold Stone Island jacket hardly made him inconspicuous and he was warned by the Football Association for making ‘hand gestures’ – a warning which seemed harsh on the player.

Four hours before Wednesday’s Manchester derby, defender Marcos Rojo asked the club he was about to leave if he could have a ticket for the away end. He received a ticket for the front row of the second tier – and wore a bright orange jacket. Rojo was quickly spotted and posed for pictures with fans as he saw United win for a second time in six weeks at the Etihad. Then on Thursday, news came in of Estudiantes signing the defender on loan for the rest of the season, the Argentine returning to the club where he started his career and played until 2011.

Rojo likes going in with fans because he’s one himself. His team are Estudiantes of his home city of La Plata in Argentina. His family grew up and still live a mile from what would become their home in the tough Triunfo barrio. A large mural has long been painted on a wall of Rojo in a half and half Estudiantes and Argentina shirt commemorating the Copa Libertadores which Rojo won in 2009, aged only 19.

Many of his friends wander around Triunfo in Manchester United kit too, not because it’s a hotbed of support for the English club but because Rojo purchased so many for locals, just as he paid for the watering system at the local pitch where he started playing.

Rojo and his brother would travel to away games to see Estudiantes, even when Rojo had made the first team and couldn’t play because of injury.

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Rojo was set to fly back to Argentina on Thursday evening to join his former club on loan. Juan Sebastian Veron, Rojo’s hero and the current chairman of Estudiantes also played for Manchester United. A sublimely gifted midfielder himself, his own time at Old Trafford promised much after his record transfer in 2001, but underwhelmed.

“If I had one frustration it was that I had highs and lows every season,” said Veron. “I was never at a high level throughout the whole season.”

Rojo’s time in Manchester didn’t turn out how he’d hoped. A £16 million (Dh76m) signing from Sporting Lisbon in 2014 under Louis Van Gaal who liked his pace, versatility and strength, he’s managed just 122 games in five and a half seasons. Injuries, including a ruptured cruciate ligament, and managerial changes have hampered his progress.

He started only three games last season, well down from the 35 (plus six as sub) of a successful 2016-17 season when United won the League Cup and the Europa League. Even then, he missed the Europa League final, a triumph he celebrated on his crutches in Stockholm. In March 2018 he was awarded a vast contract until 2021.

Rojo, 29, has not played for United since the November win against Brighton. Though he started United’s first four Europa League games, he’s played only six per cent minutes of the club’s games, which has done him no favours either.

Rojo wants to get back into the Argentina national team. He provided the greatest moment in a poor 2018 World Cup finals for his country, scoring a screamer against Nigeria in the 86th minute to win the game and keep his country in the competition.

Rojo has played in a World Cup final, played and in the World Club Championship for Estudiantes against Barcelona when he was only 19.

Rojo has endearing characteristics and United fans have sung ‘Argentina!’ in his honour. He was often the most aggressive trainer among his teammates and that aggression could be seen on the field. And the one game he did start this season was in the 1-1 draw against Liverpool where he played well, as he he did for the 90 minutes of the 2-1 cup win at Chelsea.

Rojo leaves European winter for the height of South American summer, the reverse of when he left Estudiantes for Spartak Moscow aged 20 and found the contrast extreme. But he wants regular football and to get back into the Argentina squad to add to his 61 appearances made since his 2011 debut.

He was overlooked for the pre-Christmas friendlies against Brazil and Uruguay and hopes to play in Copa America this July.

He’ll return to the city where he’s loved to play football, delighting his mother who has missed him greatly. And though unlikely, he might even come back to Manchester, this time to play football, not go to the away end.

Updated: January 30, 2020 08:27 PM

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