As a player himself he only made it as far as the reserves of Atlantida, a team in Paraguay's second division. Playing in the right back position, his power and strength made more of an impression than technical skills and elegance. But his passion for football brought him to the top in a different way, right up to being head of the South American Confederation, CONMEBOL.
Whether by accident or design we shall never know, fate saw to it that Nicolás Leóz would not make a name for himself as a player, but as President of CONMEBOL. He took over this position on a significant date, 1 May 1986 – Labour Day. Since his election at the congress in Bogotá, Colombia, nearly ten years have elapsed, and Leóz, by living up to the symbolic nature of the day of his election, has effected a fundamental transformation at CONMEBOL thanks to his élan and creativity. Or as he himself puts it, he has turned the ship around and set course for new shores. He has brought new life into the organisation, injected into it a kind of energy never seen in the previous 70 years of its existence. Out of a confederation that was housed in a little office in Lima, the Peruvian capital, he has made a highly respected organisation that now has an important voice on the international scene.
Player, journalist, official
Tall, strong, with a fair complexion and fair hair that has a reddish gleam in it, the 67 year-old Leóz is an impressive figure. Questions about his background are answered initially with a look at his origins. "Born and raised in the jungle of Chaco in Paraguay, a wild and unfriendly region. My father was a farmer from the Spanish province of Navarra and lived with the family in Puerto Casado, but despite his modest means he managed to see that each of his ten sons got a university education."
Footballer, lawyer, teacher, sports journalist, entrepreneur, club president - step by step Leóz climbed the career ladder; almost as if he was unaware of the progress he was making. Today, looking back on his life, he has stories to tell about every stage of the way. "Although I played for Atlantida, I was really a Libertad fan at heart, since my hero was their star forward, Delfin Benitez Caceres. Later, Caceres went to Argentina where he played for Boca Juniors and Racing Club, becoming top scorer and a national idol. Today he lives in Venezuela and he and I are great friends."
His admiration for Caceres not only earned him a lasting friendship; it was what brought him to the top spot in a football club, not Atlantida but, not too surprisingly, Libertad. "I was president of the club for ten years and from there I moved onto the administrative board of the Paraguayan league. At the same time I ran a sports programme on the radio, together with Arsenio Erico, the great Argentine forward."
A man with many sides to him, Leóz can count among his achievements during his ten years as president of CONMEBOL a complete transformation of the Copa América, the oldest competition for national teams, which he has seen into a new dimension. Ten years ago it was barely holding its place on the calendar, but since 1987, it has been held every two years in a different country - with huge success. Under his direction this traditional tournament has won back all its earlier glamour and is now regarded as a "Mundialito" - a mini World Cup.
The CONMEBOL president has also made his presence felt at club level. By introducing the "Supercopa João Havelange" he launched a real crowd puller. The quality of the teams taking part - all previous winners of the Copa Libertadores (the South American champions cup) - guarantees big gates all over the continent. The final last year between Flamengo and Independiente brought 120,000 spectators into the Maracana stadium in Rio.
Connections as the key to success
The economic upswing that has occurred within the South American confederation during the past few years is also credited to Leóz. He himself points out the importance of his international connections. To him they are a vital part of his activities, a secret recipe for success. "Today, it seems to me that the main figures in South American football are like members of one big family. Our relationship is one of friendship and unity. Any questions that arise are discussed with great consideration. The interests of the whole group come before those of any individual" is the way he explains his policy. "That's the only way we can make progress. We have an open door policy, and the ten members of CONMEBOL are the real owners of the organisation."
"The same goes for relationships with FIFA, which are also very good today. We are learning from the world football body all the time. And that means that we have to be modest and willing to learn." As a politician in the world of sport, he is also aware of the value of close cooperation with other confederations. "The world is made up of big blocks. What's the use of being stubborn and going one's own way? Today we can speak proudly of our friends in Europe, Asia and Africa."
South American football on top
Does Nicolás Leóz see the small number of members of CONMEBOL as a disadvantage? Is it more difficult to get a word in against confederations that have forty or even fifty members and to stand up for one's own rights? "We all have rights that have to be respected," says Leóz with conviction. "In addition one thing must not be forgotten: the exceptionally high standard of South American football. At every World Cup, Brazil and Argentina are among the top favourites. South America has produced a large number of great players in the past and continues to do so - just look at Arsenio Erico, then Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele, Maradona and so on. Not everything depends on quantity. If it did, then Asia, with over half the population of the world, would claim 18 or 20 places in the World Cup final round."
At home, in the garden of his beautiful house in Villa Morra, an elegant quarter of Asunción, the apparently unbending Nicolás Leóz, just back from vigorously defending his federation's interests, is transformed as if by magic into a relaxed and caring father. Josue Nicolas, his two-year-old son from his second marriage to a Colombian journalist, Maria Clemencia Perez, plays all over him. The family is his weak spot, the key to his inner self. From his first marriage he has two daughters, Nora Cecilia (32) and Maria Celeste (24), and thanks to them he is not only a father but also a grandfather, to the little Talia and Mauricio.
More goals, more spectators
Travelling the world in the cause of football, Nicolás Leóz spends 250 days a year in airplanes, hotels or at meetings. If he is not off somewhere, then about midday he heads for his comfortable CONMEBOL office, which is located in the Banco do Brasil building in Asunción. The morning has been spent looking after his real estate business. From there it is only a stone's throw to the scene of his real passion, to which he devotes most of his efforts and energy.
He feels in his element when he is answering correspondence, preparing for a trip or for a meeting with the various commissions. He is on the phone almost every day with his colleagues on the Executive Committee and the President of the national association. He receives visitors and delegates work to the ten or so employees in the CONMEBOL administration, checks up on results, really enjoying his position and content with the state of affairs. "For the last few years there have been lots of goals in South American tournaments, sometimes a record number, sometimes just fewer. But the average is going up year by year, and that's a sign that good football is being played on our continent. Goals are the essence of football. In the Copa CONMEBOL (similar to the UEFA Cup) there were 99 goals scored two years running, an average of 3.30 per match. There has also been an increase in the number of spectators, and at the same time a drop in the number of expulsions and other incidents. Today there are hardly any problems during these games."
Leóz openly admits that football is his passion, his life and his calling. One can easily understand the pride he takes in his homeland's achievements. "We are just ten nations, the rest of the world totals 183. But South America has won the World Cup eight times and the World Youth Championship five times. Out of 34 Intercontinental Cups, South American clubs have won 20. For reasons like these and with all due respect for the achievements of others, I have to repeat: quantity does not automatically mean quality."