Argentina began their FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 campaign in uncertain fashion in front of goal, failing to make the most of the chances they created.
Yet, as the tournament has progressed, La Albiceleste have sharpened their finishing and are now the fourth-highest scorers in the competition with 12 goals.
Part of the reason for that is the rich form of midfielder Joaquin Ibanez, who came into the side in place of a suspended team-mate for the match against Austria and has stayed there ever since, thanks to his fine performances and prolificacy. Nicknamed Pata by his team-mates, the smiling Ibanez spoke to FIFA.com about his exploits in the UAE, which has brought him four goals so far.
“It’s a surprise for me to have scored that many in the World Cup,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said that I came here expecting to get a few. That’s the way it’s turned out though, and obviously I’m very happy. I’d scored a few goals for my club but not that many, and now here I am in among them for the national team.”
Ibanez, who helped Lanus’s youth team win the Argentinian seventh division last season, acknowledged that he was a little fortunate to gain a starting place for that second group match against the Austrians, earning a place in the side after Lucio Compagnucci was sent off in the opener against Iran.
“Things like that can happen,” he said. “You come into the team because of something that doesn’t happen very often, though that’s all part of the game too. Fortunately the coach has shown faith in me and I’ve stayed in the starting line-up.”
One of the reasons why Ibanez has been able to pose a threat in the opposing penalty box is the solidity the Argentinians have shown at the back and their sound tactics, which have seen them concede just five times at UAE 2013.
“The coach asked me to either arrive late in the box or stay up the whole time,” explained the free-scoring midfielder. “The way we play has helped me to score, though it also depends on how games go.”
Ibanez and Co have built up plenty of momentum as they head into the semi-finals, where they will face reigning champions Mexico.
Looking ahead to Tuesday’s tie, Ibanez knows very well what to expect: “We are in good shape. We’re feeling relaxed and very confident in ourselves. I think it’s a game we can win, but we can’t afford to be too confident. Mexico are tough opponents, though we do have a good side and we feel we can beat them.”
The in-form player is also looking to add to his tally of goals, though he will be up against one of the best goalkeepers in the competition in Raul Gudino, who has been beaten just twice in the last four matches.
“Mexico are a well-balanced side with a great goalkeeper,” said Ibanez. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to score past him but I hope I do. I’ve got a lot of faith in myself and I really believe I can help the team reach the final, something Argentina have never managed before.”
As the 5ft 10ins midfielder went on to explain, the Argentinians have been sticking to their policy of taking each game as it comes: “Our first objective was to make it through to the last 16, which we did by winning our group without losing a game. Then we won our ties in the Round of 16 and the quarters.
"Obviously we’re dreaming of being the champions but we have to focus on what’s coming up next. We can’t lose sight of our goals or think about things that don’t make any sense.”
Discussing his ambitions, hopes and dreams, he signed off by saying “my biggest dream was to play in a World Cup in the Argentina jersey, and I’ve fulfilled that. It’s one of the best things that can happen to you as a player. My next goal now is to make my first-team debut with my club and play in the first division.”
One dream Ibanez never had, however, was top-scoring for his country in a World Cup. And yet here he is, doing just that.