Football in Sun and Shadow, published in 1995, is the title of a well-known work by South American writer Eduardo Galeano. The author’s namesake, Leonel Galeano, was just four years old at the time, but 16 years later, the Argentina defender has come out of the shadows to shine at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
The young centre-back’s darkest moment at Colombia 2011 came at the tournament’s outset, when he was forced to start on the bench, a difficult decision to accept for someone generally regarded as one of his nation's key players. The light at the end of the tunnel was as sudden as it was unexpected, but he nonetheless took the unforeseen turn of events in his stride.
As often happens in football, one man’s calamity became another man’s opportunity. Defender German Pezzella’s* pulled muscle in the 32nd minute of *La Albiceleste’s win over Korea DPR led to an immediate entrance for Galeano from the bench, although the player in question would have ideally preferred a little more advance warning.
“I was busy watching the match, and then all of a sudden I had to get it into my head that I was going to be thrown on,” recalled the Independiente centre-half to FIFA.com. “I didn’t even have time to warm up; because of that, I felt a little tight right up to half-time. I was trying to do stretching exercises while I was playing. But after the break, things got better, as I settled down into the match, and actually felt pretty good by the end of it,” he said.
Feeling and performing well during the game did not equate with any sensations that might resemble happiness, however, given the unfortunate circumstances which precipitated Galeano's appearance as a substitute. “My first reaction after it happened was sadness; sadness at seeing a team-mate lying on the ground in pain,” explained the 2010 Copa Sudamericana winner.
“I wish German all the best. He’s a very important player for us, not just for what he does on the pitch, but for his personality off it. We all hope he’ll be back as quickly as possible,” confirmed the 20-year-old.
“When that kind of thing happens, you have to put any emotions to one side straight away and get yourself involved in the match and fully focused, because the most crucial thing is securing the right result. I hope he was pleased with the win and that it gave him a boost in his recovery,” he continued.
My birthday present came a bit later when we beat Korea DPR, finished top of the group and qualified for the knockout stage.
Galeano’s immediate task now consists of re-establishing a place for himself in an Argentina defence that has appeared imperious since the beginning of the FIFA U-20 World Cup. “Up to now our defence has allowed very few opportunities and not conceded any goals. German obviously had a large part to play in that,” he pointed out.
“Mentally, it’s important to win while keeping a clean sheet. It provides a real shot in the arm ahead of the next match. But I’m capable of replacing him and maintaining the level they’ve set,” he added.
The Argentinian’s confidence should not be mistaken for arrogance; it is simply a reflection of the experience of a player who has been involved in top-flight football for the last two years, and who has become a regular at one of the country’s most demanding clubs.
Moreover, the task may have just got even tougher for him, as Independiente have brought in local hero Gabriel Milito, back in South America after eight seasons in Europe, the last four of which were spent at Barcelona. But increased competition for places does not overly worry Galeano; in fact, the opposite appears to be the case.
“It’s great news for the team, because he’s got plenty of experience at whose side I can only get better,” said the Buenos Aries native, who dragged himself out of bed at five in the morning to follow the friendly fixture his club had lined up against Jubilo Iwata in Japan, a match they eventually lost on penalties.
“He’ll improve our defence, of course, but he’ll also be an asset to the squad as a whole. You always learn when you play alongside someone who’s more experienced. And when, like him, you’ve played for the top club in the world as well as the national team, it motivates you to copy what he does and listen to what he says,” he explained.
Galeano is already on his way to following in Milito’s footsteps, following his senior international debut in February 2010 in a 2-1 win over Jamaica. Having returned to the U-20 team, the young defender, who has attracted interest from numerous Italian clubs and drawn comparisons with Argentina stalwart Walter Samuel, claims to be enjoying every minute of Colombia 2011.
And this despite having to observe proceedings from the bench for the first two matches, the second of which – a 0-0 draw with England – fell on the same day as his 20th birthday. “That doesn’t matter now. My birthday present came a bit later when we beat Korea DPR, finished top of the group and qualified for the knockout stage,” he concluded.
As they continue to advance in the competition, Galeano and his team-mates will hope to fully emerge from the shadows into the Colombian sun, in their quest to write their own piece of Argentinian history.