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Antonio Galeano remembers how he reacted after scoring Paraguay’s first goal at the Under-17 World Cup. “Si,” he says. “I was crying.”
The teenager wept as he sprinted straight towards his dugout, crashing into the warm embrace of his peers and coaching staff. If there is one thing you know about South Americans, it’s that they sure know how to celebrate goals.
The Paraguayans don’t exactly have a dance routine like the Colombians, instead they prefer a human pile-up. Galeano was buried under the first one — the one that made clear that the landlocked nation’s World Cup was off and running. In a week, they have become the most exciting team present in India, winning each of their three group games to qualify for the knockout stage.
True to the continental stereotype, Paraguay play their football with a great deal of emotion. “Football is the basics of society,” coach Gustavo Morinigo told The Indian Express ahead of the tournament. “It is what moves the people. If Paraguay does well in football, people are happy and they work better. But if it’s going badly, people feel it as well.”
So far in Mumbai, the group of 21 has played with exuberance typical of their teenage years. They play with an intention to please, both themselves and the ones watching. Statistics don’t mean much, especially the numbers that spell possession (only against New Zealand did they hold the ball longer than their opposition). Street-fighters and stylists rolled into one, there is a special love for dribbling. The mazy runs down the pitch, ball glued to the boots as they shrug off challenges with their strength and pace.
They are a bunch of individual talents without being individualistic. Their passing has been fluid and assured.
It’s almost as if they’re back in a playground, just them and the ball, and want to see how good they are. Then there is the pace in attack along the flanks. “They are dangerous because of those fast attacks, and they are physically strong,” says Turkey coach Mehmet Hacioglu, summing up the threat Paraguay pose.
They’ve netted 10 times in three matches. And it all started with Galeano’s screamer against African champions Mali in the opening 3-2 win. The youngster collected a clearing header from a set-piece just outside the box, and launched a half-volley that crashed into the back of the net.
He scored another from outside the box — the third in the 3-1 win over the Turks — to round off Paraguay’s perfect record in the group stage. But there were no tears this time, for he and his team had already made a mark on the tournament.
“Everybody is watching us,” he says. “This is the best chance for us to be seen by European clubs. The best chance of getting a better life.”
The night before the opening match, he remembers praying to God and his boots for that opportunity. His is the story typical of a Paraguayan teenager aspiring to be a football star.
Born and brought up in Asuncion, the capital city, Galeano’s father is a construction worker and his mother works as domestic help in several homes. “It’s always been a struggle and my parents too know football is the only way out,” he says.
He dropped out of school two years ago to focus on his game after earning a youth contract with top division side Club Rubio Nu. His talent was soon recognised, and as a 16-year-old, he was promoted to the starting XI of the senior team.
Playing with his own battling style, he’s fit in well with his peers in the national team. And Paraguay, with their South American blend of flair and rhythm, are making football fun again.