Raheem Sterling, N’Golo Kanté, Mauricio Pochettino, Rafael Benítez and Jermain Defoe are just some of the high-profile figures in British football who he has painted for. DeAndre Yedlin has championed his creations on Instagram and he has done paintings for his friends in Argentine football such as Fabricio Coloccini and Ignacio Scocco. To some Newell’s fans, the name of Matías Fondato may ring a bell but not in connection with art. Fondato was an aggressive defender who started his football career at Newell’s Old Boys and remains a passionate fan of the club today. From 2002 to 2006, he was on the fringes of the first team, making 5 league appearances in total and many more for the reserve side. The highlight of his career is undoubtedly being part of the squad who became champions of Argentina under Américo ‘Tolo’ Gallego in 2004.
After leaving La Lepra, his career took him around the world where he played in Greece, Belgium, Paraguay and Colombia. Now retired and living in the city of Newcastle, he is well-known to both players and staff at St James’ Park as the artist who paints life-like portraits of footballers but more importantly, as the friendly face who has helped South American players like Miguel Almirón to settle in on Tyneside.
Born in the tiny village of General Gelly, on the Santa Fe side of the border with the Buenos Aires Province, Fondato was spotted by Newell’s Old Boys while playing for Juventud in the nearby Province city of Pergamino
“They came to see me playing for Juventud and invited me for a couple of training sessions with them. After a week of training, they invited me to join the academy for the upcoming season. I was 14 at the time so it was a big decision to move away from home to chase my dream.”
Unbeknown to him, he was about to join a golden generation of players, some of whom who would go on to reach the summit with Newell’s. Long before some of that group made their debuts for the first team, they had unprecedented success at youth level.
“Many of the young players from the 2004 title-winning squad had played together in the academy. We already knew what it was like to win. In 2001, we had an invincible season, winning every single game, even without drawing. It was known as ‘La Cuarta Campeona’ and was the equivalent to u19 level. That season when we walked onto the pitch, we just knew we were going to win every game”.
By then, Fondato had already represented his country at u17 level and was part of the Argentina side that played in the 1999 South American Championships in Uruguay. Fondato remembers that period of his career with fondness.
“We played at El Coloso in June 1998 against Chile. It was amazing to be able to play for Argentina in the Newell’s stadium”
On that particular day, he lined up at centre-back alongside a player he’d already faced at youth level with Newell’s.
“Coloccini was the captain of Boca’s youth team at the time but our friendship became stronger when we played together for Argentina”.
He looks back on 2004 as a watershed year after already having experienced glory at youth level. He had moved up to the first-team squad in 2002 and two years later, that squad delivered a first title for Newell’s Old Boys in 12 years.
“It was a great group with a great leader (Tolo Gallego, who also progressed from the academy to the first team as a player at Newell’s). It was a combination of some very experienced players with the rest of the squad coming from the academy, so it was literally like a big group of friends. We knew each other for years, most of us had even lived together while playing for the academy”.
Fondato believes there was a special camaraderie among that Newell’s squad that he hasn’t seen replicated at other clubs.
“The whole squad would have lunch together every Wednesday after training. That group was by far the best one I’ve been part of in my whole career”
The atmosphere in the squad translated onto the pitch according to Matías and he’s still in touch today with many of the players who he shared that time with.
“My closest friends from that time are Iván Borghello, Fernando Belluschi, both of whom who I used to live with and also Luciano Vella, Germán Re and Ignacio Scocco”
The 2004 squad had a reunion a couple of months ago but unfortunately Matías couldn’t make the trip to Rosario from his adopted city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. However, he still keeps in regular contact with many of the players who made up that winning team.
After leaving Newell’s in 2006, he played in Paraguay and then made the move to Europe, joining Greek side Ionikos Nikeas.
“I’ve been lucky enough to experience a lot of different cultures, different languages, different climates and different lifestyles but I have to admit Athens was a very beautiful place. It had great food, amazing surrounding landscapes and the weather was gorgeous”
Stints in Colombia and back home in Argentina followed for Matías before he retired at KV Turnhout in Belgium. It was then that an old friend in England called him.
“Fabricio Coloccini invited me over to Newcastle to watch some Premier League games and I really loved everything. I’ve spoken English since I was a kid and have always felt this connection with the language and with the UK. After spending some time with Fabricio in the city, I decided to apply for a coaching course here. I was accepted onto the course and a couple of months later, I packed up all my belongings and moved to Newcastle. Five years later, I’m still here. I guess, like Fabricio, I have become another adopted Geordie from Argentina”.
Art, not football, is Fondato’s main focus now. He has been drawing since he was 3 years old and since retiring, he has dedicated himself to painting portraits of some of his favourite footballers, many of whom he now considers friends.
“I did a painting for (Newcastle defender) DeAndre Yedlin who is a massive art lover. He posted it on his Instagram and everything went a bit crazy. Since then I’ve painted for Sterling, Kanté, Rafa Benitez, Pochettino, Almirón, Lamela, Defoe and Caballero in the Premier League. I’ve also painted for other players in La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and the MLS and obviously many Argentinian players like Coloccini, Jonás Gutiérrez, Ponzio, Scocco, Belluschi and Mauro Formica”
He admits that he gets a lot of support from footballers who have helped spread the word about his art. That support is mutual and Matías returns the favour in a very different way, acting as a friend-at-hand for South American footballers who have moved to Newcastle without speaking English and who have found themselves in a strange country trying to endure a climate that they are definitely not accustomed to.
“To be honest, helping players is something I really enjoy doing. It’s not a formal role or job, it’s just something natural that I would have loved to have had while I was playing and moving around to different countries. Normally what I try to do is simple: I just want to help them make things easier for the players off the pitch. Some of the players I’ve become close to here are Jonas Gutiérrez, Miguel Almirón, Ayoze Pérez, DeAndre Yedlin, Facundo Ferreyra, Joselu Mato, Jesús Gámez, Mo Diame, Federico Fernández, Salomón Rondón and Kenedy.”
I ask Matías why Newcastle United seems to be a club that many South American players take to (Nobby Solano, who owns a restaurant in the city, being the prime example), despite its climatic challenges.
“I think Newcastle United fans are really special. There’s the combination of a very beautiful stadium, the unbelievable atmosphere that they create inside that stadium and when they see a player giving 100%, their love, support and reward is incredible. Newcastle is also a beautiful place to live and it’s a club with so much potential to grow. It’s a sleeping giant and it definitely has the potential to play for European competitions every single year”.
I can’t help but think that Matias’ description of Newcastle United can also be applied to a club beginning with ‘N’ that he knows very well. So does the ex-Newell’s man still keep up with the fortunes of La Lepra?
“Once you are a part of the Newell’s Old Boys family, you can never leave. I spent almost 10 years of my life there. I still watch every single game. I visit the training ground and the stadium every time I go back to Argentina. I know the kitmen (Pancho and Pablo) and the physios. I had a chat with Maxi Rodríguez and Mauro Formica in January (both former teammates) and I regularly talk about the club with many others that are living here in Europe or even back in Rosario”.
I wonder if Matías ever envisages having to help a young Newell’s player settle in at Newcastle United and he tells me that he has already recommended a current young talent to the scouting team at St James’ Park.
“I told the Chief Scout about Aníbal Moreno after he played for Argentina in the FIFA u20 World Cup and I reminded him again about his talent after he made his debut for the Newell’s first team. I think he has so much potential and I met him personally when I was in Argentina two months ago. You can tell he has the right mentality to come to Europe”.
With rumours that scouts from Newcastle United did indeed travel to Rosario recently to check out Moreno, Matías Fondato may not be the only Leper living on Tyneside for much longer. If that move does come to pass, there’ll be two former Newell’s players cheering on the rojinegro and shouting ‘Newell’s Carajo!’ from a sofa in the North of England.
Check out Matías Fondato’s art at his Official Instagram page. Thank you to Matías for this exclusive interview and for his permission to use the photos above.