Ricardo Rodriguez is one of the main reasons why Switzerland are at this World Cup. Despite having won nine of 10 qualifiers, the team found themselves in a play-off against Northern Ireland. In the first leg Rodriguez scored the game’s only goal and in the return he cleared a Jonny Evans header off the line in the 91st minute to secure a 1-0 aggregate win. Everyone agrees that Vladimir Petkovic’s side would not have reached the finals without the Milan defender.
The fact that he is playing football at all is startling, considering the start he had to life. His mother said in 2011 that anyone who thought he would become a top athlete would have been regarded as out of their mind.
The reason? When Rodriguez’s mother, Marcela, a native Chilean, was eight months pregnant, the doctors discovered that the unborn baby had a diaphragmatic hernia, a defect or hole in the diaphragm that allows the abdominal contents to move into the chest cavity.
In Rodríguez’s case, his stomach, spleen, liver and intestine had migrated into the chest – and as soon as he was born he had emergency surgery. He was given a 50% chance of survival and the doctors were so concerned he might not make it that they sent in a priest to see him. Marcela’s father, Nelson, immediately told the priest to go. “My grandson is strong enough, he will survive, don’t you worry about that,” he said.
And sure enough, after Ricardo’s uncle had put a small picture of the Madonna in Ricardo’s bed, the little boy pulled through. “Our Lady did a good job,” Ricardo’s mother told Blick in 2011.
Little Ricardo still had to go to hospital for a checkup every six months for the first three years of his life. “He wasn’t even allowed to catch a cold,” Marcela recalled. “It would have been dangerous right away.”
The bond between mother and son was extremely strong and that never changed. Marcela died of cancer in 2015 and since then Rodriguez has had the number 68, the year of her birth, tattooed on his back. He has the letters “J” and “M” on his neck. The “J” stands for Papa José, who immigrated to Switzerland from Spain, and the “M” for Marcela.
Rodriguez now wears the number 68, as do his two brothers, Roberto (27, FC Zurich) and Francisco (22, FC Lucerne). “I can still hear my mother,” Ricardo says. “It’s in my head. She’s in my heart. I’m fine, thank God.” At the age of 18, Ricardo had a portrait of the Madonna tattooed on his right upper arm. “Now I always have my protector with me.”
Rodriguez grew up in Schwamendingen, which is situated between two combined heat and power plants and next to the motorway triangle Zurich East. The newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung once described the quarter as the “Bronx of Zurich”.
Rodriguez began his career at FC Schwamendingen at the age of six and later moved to FC Zurich despite his older brother Roberto training with their fierce rivals Grasshopper Club Zurich, the Swiss record champions.
It was not a decision he ever came to regret. In 2009 he became a world under-17 champion as Switzerland triumphed in Nigeria and at the age of 17 years and eight months he made his first-team debut for FC Zurich. Two years later he was a senior international after Ottmar Hitzfeld gave him his debut. That night he replaced Reto Ziegler (Tottenham, Hamburg, Sampdoria, Fenerbahce) and he has never surrendered his place.
His club career has been on an upward trajectory too. In 2012, when he was 19, he joined Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga and in 2013-14 he played all 34 games and scored, from left-back, five goals and provided nine assists. In all he scored 22 goals in 184 league games for Wolfsburg – not bad for a full-back.
Last summer he joined Milan and lives with his girlfriend in City Life, a secluded, luxurious block of flats in the middle of city. It is one of the most exclusive places in Italy and his neighbour is the Italian singing star Tiziano Ferro.
Schwamendingen may appear very far away from his current life but it does not feel that way for Rodriguez. Just as every time he scores a goal he looks up to the sky to devote that moment to his mother, he will never forget where he came from. As someone who has had to fight hard to even survive, he is an inspiration to others as Switzerland attempt to make an impact in Russia.