The Mac Allister family: friends with Maradona to a World Cup with Messi

“I cried,” Carlos Javier Mac Allister admits and then he falls silent. Five seconds pass before he continues, or tries to. “I cry often,” he adds, swallowing and stopping again, taking a breath. “But …” He raises a hand to his eye, pressing gently, and eight seconds go by. “I try to be alone.” There’s another pause, longer this time, that moment, the moment, repeated in his mind.

“If you’re a father, you know,” he says eventually, his voice breaking.

Not any father, either. Ten days ago, Mac Allister sat at Stadium 974 alongside his two eldest sons and watched his youngest, Alexis, score for Argentina. Kevin and Francis are footballers at Boca Juniors and Rosario Central respectively. Their cousin plays in Malaysia. Mac Allister senior was a professional, as was his brother Patricio, and together they founded Club Deportivo Mac Allister. Nicknamed Colo, red, Carlos Mac Allister played with Diego Maradona; Alexis plays with Lionel Messi.

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Photograph: Caspar Benson

Thank you for your feedback.

There can’t be any family with a claim like it – “actually, there’s one: Diego and Gio Simeone,” Mac Allister says with a grin – and Alexis jokes that the debate is as never-ending as it is inevitable. He says Messi is the greatest; his dad says it’s Maradona, not just a teammate but the closest of friends. But that’s at home, and this is here. And maybe it’s time to admit defeat.

“Compare Messi with those playing now. Don’t compare Messi with Maradona or Maradona with Di Stéfano,” Carlos Mac Allister says. “But, look, no doubt Messi’s the best of all time. The best at the World Cup too, and at 35; it’s like his birth certificate is lying. Modric’s lying, too. We went to the World Youth Cup in 2005 and came back talking about a player who would be better than Maradona. He’d just turned 18.” Mac Allister draws an impossible dribble in the air. “Tic, tic, goal. Seventeen years on, he’s still there! No one reigned as long. Maradona was retired by 32. People say this is his last World Cup. Che, are you sure?”

“I’m a rational man and Messi’s numbers are unarguable. What more do you want?! Thing is, there’s a context. Maradona had all sorts of personal problems and despite those won a World Cup. He went to Italy, carried an entire city on his shoulders, made them champions. Now you see Messi at 35 and think: che, Maradona was extraordinary, truly great, but Messi is an example. You should look at Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Ramos: not to play like them, but to be like them.”

Alexis Mac Allister is embraced by Lionel Messi after scoring for Argentina against Poland
Alexis Mac Allister is embraced by Lionel Messi after scoring for Argentina against Poland. Photograph: Michael Regan/Fifa/Getty Images

That message resonates with everything he says about his boys and their upbringing. The Mac Allisters arrived from Ireland in the 1800s, he says, and have Italian roots too. The Pampas is their place, Alexis the first pampeano to go to the World Cup. But if you’re looking for an identity, it’s football. The Mac Allisters love football. When the families visited the Argentina team hotel two days ago theirs was the table with a phone on showing Morocco v Portugal.

There’s a smile, a flash of pride when he recalls Alexis being invited to talk to Villarreal five years ago. Unable to accompany him, he sent Kevin and Francis instead. “When the meeting finished they called: ‘Bloody hell, Javier, what sons you have!’” he says. “They know every player, every team, every detail. I heard Raphinha say he prefers to watch series; my boys watch every match from morning to night, drinking mate. When they were little, I’d say: ‘You follow the No 2 and the No 4; you follow the 8 and the 5; you, the 10 and 11. I’ll do the others.’ They would note it all down: good passes, bad passes, headers won, headers lost …” Mac Allister still does so, providing his sons with analyses of their games.

A product of their father, then? “No,” he insists. “The product of a very important academy, Argentinos Juniors. Family where what matters is being good people. Themselves. They’re not remote-controlled. They find their way, not always look back and see mum and dad.

“At games, people pat me on the back: ‘che, Colo, how did you do it?’ No, no, no, no. His mum did is fundamental; we have to value more mothers’ work. I’m not the ‘father’ of their formation: it’s the clubs, the coaches, the kids they played with, the whole family, and Alexis’s older brothers were so important for him. They’re not footballers because they were told to be: they’re footballers because they like it, it’s their passion.”

It doesn’t stop there: Mac Allister speaks warmly of Brighton and of a future in which Alexis continues in the Premier League, stats he runs through underlining his evolution, especially since shifting position. He recalls a long diagonal ball played on his second game, aged 17: “I said: ‘Bloody brilliant! And what personality. This is a first-division player.’ So I don’t think the pressure will affect him: that’s his best quality.” Asked what is it about his game that reveals Alexis as a Mac Allister, Colo smiles. “The way he tackles,” he says, sharing a photo to show it. “But it’s the only thing he has that’s me, eh!”

“I will never be that papa tonto, that pushy dad saying his kid is the best. The most important thing is the team, they know. And I say to them: ‘hey, you didn’t play 400 games yet’,” Mac Allister says, laughing. “I told them I scored against Real Madrid. They didn’t believe me. One day channel hopping, the game was on. ‘Watch this’. You have to say that occasionally. They’re miles better in everything else. The more they leave me behind, the happier I am.”

There may be no prouder papa here. “Although you’re worried about injury right up to the last game against Aston Villa, I was confident Alexis would get called up,” he says but even he didn’t expected it to go this well, the look on his face speaking of discovery, joy. “This is my first World Cup,” Mac Allister says. “Now I realise what a World Cup is, what it means. And it’s tremendous. I never had the chance to come before.”

Mac Allister’s competitive appearances for Argentina were limited to the playoff against Australia that qualified them for the 1994 World Cup. The story goes he was left out after kicking Ariel Ortega in a Boca-River clásico. “No, the opposite!” he protests. “It was because I didn’t kick him. I should have buried him. I didn’t play well, although I don’t think a decision was made based on one game. [Jorge] Valdano said every player needs a small quota of criminality inside and that day of all days I didn’t.

“Those games, the playoff against Australia, were historic. There were loads of nerves in the country and the team. They’d come from the 5-0 loss against Colombia, wounded. So of course I would have liked to make the World Cup. But I felt satisfied I gave what I had to get Argentina there.”

Which was where Maradona was thrown out for doping, conversation turning again to Mac Allister’s captain and companion. “Firstly, I don’t think Diego had taken drugs to play [better]: I think it was an accident,” he says. “And you forgive an idol anything. The problem is that when your leader falls, you fall.”

Alexis Mac Allister

Mac Allister remembers one night in Brazil years later when Maradona “almost died”. But then, he adds: “Maradona flirted with death every day. Maradona was always bad for Maradona, he was never bad for anyone else; he treated himself badly, not others. Diego was a monster, I was a normal player. We were close; he looked after me. One day gave me, Kily González, Juan Sebastián Verón and Blas Giunta a Rolex each. I got robbed coming out of Racing’s ground one night. They smashed the car window, grabbed me, we struggled. The guy took out a gun: ‘The Rolex or I’ll kill you.’ It was worth over $5,000 but what mattered was the gesture and Maradona gave you everything.

“We went round the world, and wherever we went, there would be 200, 300, 1,000 or 2,000 people. They were never waiting for us, they were waiting for Maradona. He was an extraordinary player, the best. But people don’t want a sportsman; they want a moral leader, and a piece of him. Maradona once said: ‘Sometimes I wake up, look at myself in the mirror and say: Dieguito, what will they ask you today?’ They asked him about world leaders, the war. What the hell do you want him to say?! You have to say: ‘I don’t have an opinion,’ but Diego’s character meant he had an opinion on everything.

“Leaders absorb all the pressure. One reason Messi is so great is how he handles it. He’s polite even when he tells you to piss off. Messi and Maradona grew up in different countries, different situations, different eras. They just have different personalities, that’s all; totally different beings. The responsibility was Maradona’s then, now it’s Messi’s. Being Messi doesn’t come free. He never hides: if he’s marked, give him the ball. For Argentinians, Maradona was always Maradona with the national team. But Messi has shown he loves the country, the shirt, like Maradona loved it. When things were bad, he refused to give in. When leaders say that, you follow. I’m enjoying this current one.”

So are Kevin and Francis, the entire family there at every game. Above all, so is his eldest son. “You have to know how to play with Messi. Messi has been the best for 15 years,” Mac Allister says. “These kids were six or seven when Messi started. When we were kids, my brother and I shared a room: a table, beds either side. We would turn the light off, put the radio on the table and listen to Victor Hugo Morales commentate Boca games. One day Boca became champions. I closed my eyes and imagined playing with Maradona. And one day I did.”

“They will always be idols and it’s right to never forget, to always respect them. The other day we saw Gabriel Batistuta. Alexis invited his kids over and that made me proud. My kids are in a place forged by others: Batistuta, Maradona, Ruggeri, Batista. But you have to break that knot that says ‘he was my idol’ and move on to ‘he’s my teammate’.”

How? “Personality,” Mac Allister says. “And these pibes have personality. Not just Alexis, all of them.”

Leave a Comment