Azcona daring to dream with Independiente
Azcona daring to dream with Independiente
When he went to bed on the day Paraguayan club 12 de Octubre handed him a place in their youth set-up, the then 11-year-old Daniel Azcona could hardly sleep, and not because he was in a state of excitement. That trial was, remarkably, the very first time he had kept goal, and the youngster had flung himself around so much that he was covered in grazes. “I was so roughed up I could barely lie down when I got home,” said the keeper, in conversation with FIFA.com.
Continuing to recall his early days between the posts, the Independiente del Valle shot-stopper said: “I played up front at school, but I always enjoyed watching keepers play. When I went to the training session there were 900 kids there and 400 of them were forwards."
The hero of the hour when the Ecuadorian side overcame defending champions River Plate to earn a place in the last eight of the Copa Libertadores, Azcona added: “When they came to me, I told them I was a keeper. I didn’t even have any gloves, though. I played for 20 minutes and let in six goals. I didn’t even know where to stand. It was crazy. I got in as the third-choice goalkeeper without even knowing how to catch the ball or dive.”
The man who saw something in a kid who, as he admitted, had no idea about goalkeeping technique, was Dionisio Cabanas, and that helping hand he gave the youngster was the first of many. Azcona, who hails from the Paraguayan town of Caacupe, came from a family of modest means, which meant he did not always have enough money to get to training. “There were days when I cycled 30 kilometres to get there,” he explained.
But on the days when that bike ride was too daunting, in stepped Cabanas: “He either came to get me or he paid for my ticket,” said Azcona. “He was always there, trying to make sure I wouldn’t give up. It was really hard work, and having got where I’ve now got I really appreciate it.”
Dreams of continental success
Now 32, Azcona is the captain of a young side that is looking to pull off the remarkable feat of reaching the last four of the Libertadores despite having only spent seven seasons in the Ecuadorian top flight. “The most important thing is that the team keeps its feet on the ground,” said the keeper, who prefers to go by the name of Dani, as his grandparents used to call him, rather than his second name, Librado.
“We’re always talking to the kids because it’s a very young squad,” he added. “It’s up to us to make history but we’ve got to do even better if we want to achieve it.”
Azcona and his team-mates will be in Copa action again on Tuesday, when they take on Mexico’s Pumas UNAM in their quarter-final first leg. “There have been times when we’ve joked about and said: ‘Just imagine if we make the final and become the champions without having even won a tournament here in Ecuador’,” explained the custodian, who has got his colleagues drinking tereré, the popular Paraguayan herb infusion. “The boys all know very well, though, that it’s all about taking things one step at a time and that you have to play to win games.”
River know that only too well, having gone into their last-16 tie with the Ecuadorian outfit as very firm favourites, so firm in fact that Independiente were determined to prove a point against them, as their Paraguayan custodian explained: “The press were saying before the game that River were already through to the quarters, that we were as good as out. That really got us going and pumped us up for the tie. Everyone was up to the job too. Nobody got fazed with the pressure that River and their fans tried to put us under.”
After winning the first leg in Quito 2-0, Independiente sealed their place in the next round in what Azcona described as an “amazing” match at the Monumental, where River scored just once from 22 goal attempts, a statistic that had much to do with the superb performance of the visiting goalkeeper.
“I was so focused out on the pitch that I didn’t really notice, but when I watched the game again with my wife two days later, I saw how the ball just didn’t want to go in and how much luck we had. I’d make a save and there they were two seconds later, having another go at goal. I know we got through but it was nerve-racking just watching it all again and seeing how many chances River created.”
Now a naturalised Ecuadorian, Azcona has made the 40-man shortlist for La Tricolor’sCopa America Centenario squad, an achievement that owes much to performances such as the one he turned in against River: “It’s the dream of any player to play like that at a stadium like the Monumental.”
A born competitor, Azcona is hungry for more, however, his ambition fired by Independiente’s Uruguayan coach Pablo Repetto: “He really knows how to get his message across to the players, and he’s instilled a winning mindset in us.” So full of belief is the keeper, in fact, that he even had words to say to the club president when he dropped into the dressing room after the return meeting with River and congratulated the players for having won “their Libertadores”.
“I had to interrupt him,” recalled Azcona. “I said to him that it was OK, that it was a result for us to enjoy, but that we had two more finals coming up against Pumas and that we had to keep on trying.”
Thanks to their youth set-up and the work of the current coaching staff, Independiente have come an awful long way in the last four years, having appeared in two Copa Sudamericanas and two Libertadores, which, in the words of Azcona, has made them mature on the international stage.
Something else that has developed lately is the little museum that his sister has set up for him back in Asuncion. “I’ve got quite a few nice things, like the gloves Rogelio Ceni gave me, (Marcelo) Barovero’s jersey, and the sucre coin I got when I took out Ecuadorian nationality,” he said. “And from the Monumental I kept my shirt and gloves.”