As every professional footballer knows, you need three things to make a successful career in the game: talent, a little bit of luck and the ability to make the most of whatever opportunities come your way.
Ticking all those boxes and more is 21-year-old Argentinian defender Ezequiel Garay, who has proved equal to every single challenge he has faced over the last four years. After making his debut at the age of 18, he quickly pocketed an Argentinian league winners medal with Newell's Old Boys before helping the Albiceleste to victory at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005.
Then, with only a handful of league games behind him, he crossed the Atlantic to join one of Spain's lesser lights, making such an impression with Racing Santander in La Liga that Real Madrid have just splashed out a sizeable fee for his services. The upwardly mobile Garay is not stopping there, though, and is already looking beyond what he hopes will be a golden trip to Beijing this summer, setting his sights on a long run in the full Argentina team.
A front man turned defender
Rosario born and bred, Garay actually started out life as a striker. "When I began in the youth teams at Newell's Old Boys they played me as a defender and that's where I stayed," he recalls with a smile. Standing 1.89m tall, the youngster has always exerted a commanding physical presence. Add to that his almost-telepathic reading of the game, flawless distribution, prowess in the air and dead-ball skills, and it is easy to see why his career has traced an upward curve.
He first started to make a name for himself in 2003 when he formed part of the U-17 team that Hugo Tocalli took to the South American championships in Ecuador. From there it was on to Finland for the FIFA U-17 World Cup finals, where he appeared in every one of Argentina's games and contributed two goals in their run to third place. "I got a lot out of my time in the U-17 side," he has said on numerous occasions. "That's where I matured as a player and a person."
Known as El Negro, Garay then made his Argentinian first division debut in December 2004 against Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata. Just one game later Newell's had clinched the Apertura championship. "It was a dream debut for me," Garay said in an interview with national daily Clarín. "I played my first game in what amounted to a final. I wasn't expecting it at all and naturally I was delighted."
A very special year
2005 brought even more joy for the central defender, starting with the Argentina U-20 squad's triumphant campaign in the Netherlands, where he teamed up with the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Fernando Gago and Oscar Ustari. Although he began the tournament on the bench and only played a few minutes against Spain in the quarter-final, he made the starting XI for the final against Nigeria.
"Nothing can beat winning the World Cup for your
country," he said.
In early November that year he achieved another landmark when he scored his first goal in the top flight for his beloved Newell's. And just to make the strike even sweeter, it came in the Rosario derby against Central. "That's the most important goal I've scored up to now," he said recently. "It was my first and it also helped us win the clásico 2-1."
Just 19 days later, and having made only 13 appearances for his hometown club, Garay travelled to northern Spain to complete a deal with Racing Santander. With such little experience behind him, however, would he be able to adapt to life in one of the most competitive leagues in the world and fulfil expectations?
Full steam ahead
While the first six months were far from easy, the new arrival gradually found his feet. "It was tough at first, mainly because the game in Spain is much faster than in Argentina," he recently told the Spanish press. "But I kept working away and waited for my chance to come. When it did, I took it."
He played seven full games in the last 14 matches of the 2005/06 season, and started 30 out of 38 the following term, an indication of the rapid progress he was making. His first league goal for the Cantabrians was a memorable one, a fine free kick against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, a strike that proved almost as special as his maiden goal for Newell's.
Although Racing went down 2-1 that day, Garay helped them gain revenge in the return fixture against the Merengues at the Sardinero, notching twice in a 2-1 win, a brace that helped take his tally for the season to nine, seven of them from the penalty spot.
On the international front the retirement of Roberto Ayala has opened the door for the Racing stopper. Alfio Basile called him up for a tour in May 2007 and he looked a certainty to make the squad for the Copa America in Venezuela. An untimely injury to his right knee caused him to miss both engagements, however.
Nevertheless, Basile kept the youngster in mind and handed him his full debut against Norway on 23 August, his only cap to date. "I know I didn't have a great game that day but I'm going to keep on working hard. If I can perform well at the Games, hopefully I'll be able to work my way back into the full team."
And if the ever-improving Ezequiel can maintain his current trajectory, he has every reason to expect a return to the Albiceleste set-up before too long.