They call him 'El Zorro:' Matias Coccaro hopes to win new fans at CF Montreal

MONTREAL — When Matias Coccaro left his last team, the fans cried.

Now the 26-year-old striker from Uruguay may be destined to become equally popular at CF Montreal after joining in the off-season from Argentine club CA Huracan.

The fans at Huracan nicknamed Coccaro "El Zorro" for his well-groomed moustache that resembled the fictional masked vigilante. Coccaro bought into it, dressing in a cape and mask to celebrate one of their victories back in 2021.

Beneath that signature ‘stache is an infectious smile. Rather than carving out a "Z" on his defeated foes, the happy-go-lucky Coccaro makes his mark by signing autographs for every fan who makes an effort to see him.

That’s why, he says, a little girl in Argentina wept inconsolably next to him on television after his move to Montreal was announced. The moment drew tears from Coccaro, too.

"There’s a responsibility I had with the fans," Coccaro said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter at CF Montreal’s training complex. "Fans can travel a long distance, like 1,000 kilometres, to watch a football game.

"When the game ends, you have to spend some time with them. Maybe a fan stopped working or put things aside and made a big sacrifice to be there with you."

Coccaro impressed CF Montreal fans when he signed autographs and took pictures with every last supporter at a team kickoff event last week. He’s also hoping to eliminate the language barrier by taking weekly French lessons.

"El Zorro" and his daring playstyle are set to be on display Saturday as Montreal (2-3-1) returns from a season-opening six-game road trip to host FC Cincinnati (3-1-3) in its home opener at Stade Saputo.

"We think every direct centre back that he's facing is scared of him," first-year Montreal head coach Laurent Courtois said. "He's an animal, in a good way."

The five-foot-10 Coccaro has a knack for scoring goals and getting under the skin of opponents. In six Major League Soccer appearances, he has three goals — two from penalties — one assist and 13 fouls drawn.

Though his teammates aren't ready to pronounce Coccaro a fan favourite just yet, captain Samuel Piette doesn’t expect it to take long for him to earn that label.

"He just always smiles, you can see he's always happy, nothing negative about him," Piette said. "And also the style of football he plays — super aggressive, works hard, winning a lot of fouls, able to keep the ball up top, which I think this is what fans like here in Montreal.

"If you gave it all and you wet the shirt, at the end of the day that's all the fans can ask. That's something he does every day so I think that's why they're going to like him pretty quickly."

Coccaro’s workmanlike attitude stems from humble beginnings. Born and raised in Pirarajá, a small agricultural village of under 1,000 people in southeastern Uruguay, a future as a professional soccer player seemed out of reach.

"It's almost impossible," Coccaro said. "I'm a one-of-a-kind in my town, but I'm resilient."

His father owned a bar and his family lived modestly, and Coccaro insists his goal wasn’t to be a soccer player: "My plan was really to study."

Coccaro says that changed when he was 18 years old, and playing soccer became a way to fund his studies in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo.

He joined the youth academy of Italian club Cagliari for a brief period in 2017 before returning to South America and playing in Argentine side CA Tucumán’s youth team.

From there, he gradually rose through the professional ranks in Uruguay before joining Huracan in 2021, scoring 31 goals over 110 appearances en route to becoming a popular figure with the top-flight Argentine team.

Enticed by the exposure that comes with playing in the same league as superstar Lionel Messi and Uruguayan legend Luis Suarez, Coccaro moved to MLS in January.

"The level, first of all, has gotten much stronger," Coccaro said of MLS. "The quality of marketing, the marketing got so big, the league got so big, Messi and Suarez came.

"It makes the league a lot more visible right now, it's around the world right now. So that's why (I wanted to join MLS)."

Coccaro has ambitions of playing in one of the top leagues in Europe, but first he’ll need to find his footing in North America.

"He's an incredible competitor,” Courtois said. "But new league, new teammates, new coach, new language, new rules — so there's stuff that he needs to learn."

As for his trademark facial hair, Coccaro says he grew it when he was younger to feel more masculine — but now his niece is begging him to shave it.

"I don't want to do it," he said.

After a strong start to the season, Montreal has lost three games in a row, including a 5-0 defeat to the Seattle Sounders last week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2024.

Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press