As the ball pinged off a Mali defender and floated towards him, Antonio Galeano took it on his chest, then, on the half-volley, sent a searing right-footed shot from 20 yards into the back of the net. Tears brimming in his eyes, he set off towards the Paraguayan dugout, which was bouncing with joy.
Galeano had just scored the first goal of the Fifa Under-17 Wold Cup for his team, and paved the way for an entertaining 3-2 win over Mali on the opening day at Navi Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium on 6 October.
“It was a really important goal for me, that was why I was crying a bit," says Galeano during an interview on Sunday. “It was an incredible feeling for me. The night before I had been praying to God, praying to my boots as well to help me do well in the match."
Mumbai is the farthest he has ever been from his home in Asunción. The applause from the 19,000-strong crowd in the stadium, along with the team huddle, brought back some feeling of homely warmth.
At the other end of the pitch, Paraguay goalkeeper Diego Huesca was playing. Even as Mali started imposing their quick, athletic play on the game, the teenager under the bar was doing his best to stem the damage. He made six saves on the opening night to justify his fast-track entrance into the team.
It was only in February that the Paraguay Under-17 coaching staff had become aware of Huesca.
His parents, both doctors, had moved to Spain when he was only four years old, in search of a better life. Huesca came on Paraguay’s football radar when he was selected to train with Valencia’s senior side—he has been a part of their youth set-up since 2014—in February. Despite an ankle injury, the goalkeeper stood strong against the likes of Nani, the veteran Portuguese striker.
“The goalkeeping coach texted me in February, but I could only join the Paraguay team in July because I had to stay with my club till the end of the season," says Huesca. Not surprisingly, the goalkeepers who had been in the side from early on, and helped Paraguay to a third-place finish in the 2017 Under-17 South American Championship, didn’t welcome him warmly.
“They wanted to kill him," smiles Galeano. He speaks in Spanish, keeping up a rapid pace; Huesca plays the translator for this interview.
“When I arrived, it was like a surprise for the team," adds Huesca. “But he (Galeano) is saying they were also impressed because I play in Spain and brought a different idea of the game. In Spain, we play more with the ball; I play more like a defender and use my feet.
“But the game is more physical in Paraguay and we are taught to use spaces in the field. When I arrived," he says, “I also updated the group. The midfielders/strikers used to hit the ball more to me, to see what I can do."
The group was curious about Huesca. He embodied their aspirations: living and playing in Europe.
Most members of the Under-17 team come from humble backgrounds. Galeano’s father, for example, is a construction worker and his mother, a domestic help—the family runs on meagre resources.
“My parents have sacrificed a lot for me to become a football player," he says. Like a lot of boys his age with dreams of being a professional footballer, Galeano dropped out of school two years ago after he got a contract with Paraguayan top-division club Rubio Ñu. In the Paraguayan top league, every team has to field at least one Under-19 player and Galeano, who marshals the right wing, won that honour when he was only 16.
“A lot of children leave school early and look at football as a way to escape this lifestyle," says Galeano. “But now in Paraguay, the President (Horacio Cartes) has made it compulsory for all football players to study. Because there is a lot of competition in football back home, and for players who don’t make it, they at least have education to fall back on."
Huesca, meanwhile, says he was a studious boy, hoping to follow in his parents’ professional footsteps, before the Valencia call-up convinced him he had a future in football.
“I had started as a striker when I was three years old," he says. “But I became a goalkeeper at five-six years of age. My mother used to show me videos of José Luis Chilavert (the famous Paraguayan goalkeeper). He was left-footed, like me, and used to help his team in attack as well (Chilavert, famously, was also a free-kick specialist). Hopefully, I can be as good a goalkeeper as him."
Like most South American countries, football rules the imagination in Paraguay. There is a slice of the sunny country in their joyful play. Huesca, who returned to the country of his birth for the three-month camp before the World Cup, has grown up in a Spanish society already passionate about the game. But Paraguay, he says, is a little crazier.
“In Paraguay, people stop work, everything, when there is a football game on," says the 17-year-old. “The bosses won’t say anything. They are not fanatical in Spain."
That passion translated into a top-notch training programme for the junior squad. The Paraguayan Under-17 team impressed everyone during the South American Championship with their technical play and ended up being the only team in the tournament that Brazil, the eventual champions, could not beat.
Ahead of this World Cup, they underwent rigorous training at ungodly hours.
“We used to get up at 1am, have our breakfast, and start training by 2am," says Galeano, spelling out the measures the coaching staff took to help tune their body clock for India, which is eight-and-a-half hours ahead of Paraguay. “After training, we had to stay up for a few hours, when we used to watch horror or comedy movies or learn basic Hindi, and then have lunch at 6am. We would sleep for 2 hours, then go back to train. Bedtime was 4pm. It was difficult in the beginning but now that we are here, it is paying off."
The Under-17 team is the foundation stone of a strong senior side. The Albirroja (white and red) are trying to make up for the senior team’s lack of World Cup success—they have qualified for the mega event eight times and their best finish was the quarter-final in 2010.
“We trained with the objective of winning the (Under-17) World Cup," Galeano adds. “It is not a distraction but we are aware that scouts from all around the world are here. The whole world is looking at us and it is our biggest opportunity. Everyone wants to go to Europe and this generation is going to make it."
Paraguay, who beat New Zealand 4-2 on Monday, play their last group match today against Turkey.