When Diego Huesca first joined the Paraguay U17 team, back in July, he didn’t quite get the reception he thought he would. “The other goalkeepers wanted to kill him,” recalls his teammate Antonio Galeano, matter-of-factly.
There was already tough competition within the squad, as coach Gustavo Morinigo was yet to decide the final 21 he was to take with him to the U17 World Cup in India. And Huesca’s – who plays for Valencia CF in Spain, the only Paraguayan at a European club – inclusion infuriated his rivals. “The other goalkeepers helped us qualify for the World Cup, but then Diego took over,” Galeano adds.
For the outfielders, there was intrigue. Never before had they faced a custodian trained at an elite European club. “We wanted to see what was so special about this guy from Valencia,” adds the midfielder.
And so the strikes at goal during training was laced with extra venom. But Huesca prevailed – the least that was expected from him. For just a few months earlier, the teenager was parrying shots from the likes of Argentina World Cupper Ezequiel Garay, Valencia skipper Daniel Parejo, and Portugal’s key Euro 2016 winning marksman Luis Nani.
His spot on the team was rightfully earned. He confirmed it last Friday with six crucial saves against a strong Mali team, helping Paraguay win 3-2 in their World Cup opener at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai. Back in February, just six months short of his 17th birthday, Huesca got a call up to train with the Valencia senior squad after spending four years with the youth team. There was a worry though, as he had twisted his ankle just a day ago. “The call is something you dream about as a kid, and I wasn’t going to let the ankle stop me,” he says. “I went for training, and when I was stopping shots by Nani and the rest of the team, the pain was gone,” he adds, smiling.
The call-up, for Huesca, was the next step in his journey to becoming a full-fledged professional. But for Paraguay, it was the discovery of a new talent for the national team.
“Nobody knew I existed until some newspapers carried articles about me,” says Huseca. “The federation at home saw those stories and got in touch with me to play for the World Cup team.”
Born in Encarnación, a town in Southern Paraguay situated at the border with Argentina, he was just four when his parents migrated to Spain for a better life. In Terrasa, near Barcelona, he grew up. As his parents were distinguished doctors, there was pressure on him to do well in school. “I’d probably have become a doctor if I didn’t make it in football,” he quips.
But at the same time, his mother used to show him videos of legendary Paraguayan goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert since he was six. Huesca used to watch closely, as the flambuoyant custodian made saves with the same ease at which he scored goals. The youngster saw himself becoming a big name like the former national skipper, who was left-footed just like Huesca. “You could say I was destined to become a goalkeeper,” he laughs.