Alvarez gunning for Albirroja glory

A born fighter, Yennifer Alvarez is nothing if not versatile. A centre-back by trade, the solidly built Paraguayan has also played at full-back, on the right side of midfield and in the centre on occasion.

A dual U-17 and U-20 international, she lives alone and faithfully pursues a daily schedule that involves going to school in the morning and then making a four-hour round trip by bus to go training.

Brimming with character and a mainstay of the Albirroja squad that will contest the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Costa Rica 2014, she remains a little girl at heart, and longs to spend more time with her mother Lucia, who has been living in Spain for the last six years.

“My dream is to play in Spain so that I can be close to her,” the soon-to-be 17-year-old told FIFA.com. “She is very happy that we’re playing against Spain because she’ll be able to see me on TV. It will be very special for me, like a dream come true.”

Yennifer, who explained that she goes by the name of “Chini” on account of her Oriental features, talks to her mother every day, and though her daily routine is not the easiest, she keeps smiling through it all.

One thing that keeps her going is her burning ambition to succeed: “I have to sacrifice a lot but it’s something I love doing. I love playing football. I have fun. I suffer a lot more because I’m from inland Paraguay. I don’t have my family, but they help me from afar and I try to keep moving forward.”

Yennifer fell in love with the game when, at the age of five, she went to see her brother Rafael at the football academy their father runs in La Paz, in the south of the country. As she watched him she would kick a ball around herself, catching her brother’s eye in the process.

“One day they were one short and my brother asked me if I wanted to play, so on I went,” she explained. “I started to play tournaments with them, and I carried on playing with the boys until I was 11.”

The learning curve
As she went on to say, she had to learn how to defend herself along the way: “My father taught me to stick up for myself because there were some boys who disrespected me at times. I learned a lot of things from football.”

Yennifer is not the only member of the Paraguay squad who grew up kicking a ball around with boys, which is not an uncommon sight in the country’s inland regions and perhaps one of the reasons why this Albirroja side will be pushovers for no one.

“We’ve got a lot of grit and a good defence,” she said. “We like to sit and wait and then press hard as a unit in the middle of the pitch. Then we try to play the ball out and make the most of the speed of our forwards.”

Yennifer is one of five members of the U-17 squad who also featured in the U-20 team’s unexpectedly successful bid to secure a place at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Canada 2014: “People had Colombia and Brazil down as the favourites, which just motivated us even more.”

She and her colleagues are underdogs once more in Costa Rica, not that she is overly concerned about that: “We’re in really good shape. We’re united and we’re all getting better every day. I think we’re going to get past the group phase and we’ve really prepared for this. We have to win the first match, take each game as it comes and then go for the final and win it.”

The Paraguayan girls are certainly doing their homework. With women’s football rarely shown on TV back home, the players get together in the afternoons to study their rivals and learn.

“We watch videos of the things they do on YouTube, paying special attention to free-kicks,” said Yennifer. “I always watch Spain, Japan and Brazil.” Her choice of viewing material is astute, with both the Spanish and the Japanese drawn with Paraguay in Group C.

She added that the experience she and her four colleagues have picked up with the U-20s will stand them in good stead in Costa Rica: “It was tough at the start, but I soon got used to it. We gained experience in the U-20 championships and played against a great Brazil side in the final. That’s going to come in useful in Costa Rica and we’ll be talking to the other girls about it.”

A sweet tribute
Though she played at centre-half in the U-17 qualifying competition, just as she does for her club and just as her role model Carles Puyol does, she will be performing on the right side of midfield in this tournament. Thanks to finishing skills and speed, she may well get in among the goals too, just as she did in the South American U-20 Championship. “I had a lot of joy down the flank,” she explained.

If she does find the back of the net, she will kiss her left arm, where she has the name of her grandfather, Juan Matto, tattooed: “He died three years ago and he never saw me play as a professional. When I was a little girl he organised games with our cousins and I was in his team. He always gave lollies to the winners. He spoke to me a lot about football, and when I score I always kiss the tattoo and give my thanks to him.”