Society is often unkind to the overweight, and this can be particularly true in childhood. In the competitive world of football, heavier children are often left till last when teams are picked, and if they are selected, they invariably find themselves placed between the posts. Curiously, it was a vaguely similar set of circumstances that would provide Colombia with a goalkeeper who is currently excelling at the FIFA U-20 World Cup: Cristian Bonilla.
“I was eight years old and playing for Once Caldas as a striker, and I used to have to chase after the bao tll quite a bit,” recalled the Boyaca Chico keeper to FIFA.com. Those that witnessed him performing at the time have described a goalscorer with power, promise and a few extra pounds.
“I was very fat, so much so that one day I said to my dad that I wanted to play in a position where I didn’t have to run as much, and so I was put in goal. And now here I am, representing my country, which makes me feel prouder than anything else,” he explained.
Bonilla’s physical appearance these days almost stretches the credibility of this anecdote. Tall and trim, his physique is not dissimilar to that of former Colombia international Oscar Cordoba. “There’s no doubt I ate a lot, but I didn’t feel that fat. Now though, when I look at photos from back then, it’s fair to say that the others were right. I was shaped like a little ball!” he said, laughing.
On the pitch, however, humour is not part of his repertoire. Serious, focused and vocal, he has been instrumental in the success of a team that has raised the hopes of an entire nation. “I’ve just been working away without that much fuss, but I know that I’ve performed well,” said the fan of Once Caldas keeper Juan Carlos Henao.
There is no disputing Bonilla’s record: since France’s Gilles Sunu took him by surprise with an impressive long-range effort in Los Cafeteros’ opening match, the shot-stopper has gone 249 minutes without conceding a goal.
“If I had to give myself a mark out of ten, I’d probably say eight so far. I feel calm and confident. But I don’t like the fact that I’m being referred to as one of our key players – I’d prefer to be seen as just a small cog in a larger wheel,” pointed out Bonilla, one of the youngest players in Colombia’s squad.
Coming from a family of footballers, he has clearly defined objectives. His initial aim is to win the FIFA U-20 World Cup, although he is very aware that, now that the field has been whittled down to 16 teams, the hard work is just beginning, starting with his nation’s upcoming game with Costa Rica. “Whoever we come up against now, we’ll be faced with teams who’ll not hesitate to attack and show their skills,” he said.
The Colombian custodian also knows there is no room for mistakes, and that he will have to stand up and be counted should any matches in the knockout stages go the full distance. “I’m totally ready should there be a shoot-out, because I did pretty well when the recent Toulon Tournament final went to penalties. I saved two of France’s spot kicks that day, and we won the trophy,” recounted the young South American, who has been known to study video footage of opposing strikers in order to gain the upper hand.
Physically strong and good at dealing with aerial balls, Bonilla has another feature that makes him stand out from the goalkeeping crowd: he plays in long trousers. “I like them and feel good wearing them, but they’re more for luck than anything else,” he admitted. And while he claims that they would not be swapped for shorts “even in the heat of Barranquilla”, he knows that his technical abilities in goal are the real reason fans are talking about him.
“I’m a good all-round goalkeeper, with various qualities. I’ve been compared to Oscar Cordoba, which is a great source of pride for me, although I believe that I also have some clear stylistic traits of my own,” he noted.
Before bringing the interview to a close, Bonilla indulges in a little game. He closes his eyes and imagines his whereabouts on 20 August: “I see myself in bed the night before, calmly awaiting the final. And then I see us lifting the trophy and me receiving the award of best goalkeeper of the tournament. That’s my personal goal.”
Does he see himself doing anything else that day? “Yes, going out to celebrate with the family that I love so much. They’ve got a lot to do with me being here right now,” he concluded. And that, as he would surely agree, is something that is worth its weight in gold.