2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™

14 June - 15 July

2018 FIFA World Cup™ 

Paraguay's Gonzalez, a force of personality


Not even the roar of almost 31,000 people in the crowd in Concepcion that day could drown out Victor Caceres as he begged his team-mate to reconsider:

"No, Derlis. No, Derlis, please no!"

With veterans like Roque Santa Cruz, Nelson Valdez and Paulo da Silva on the pitch, what was a 20-year-old kid doing stepping up to the spot to take a crucial penalty? But Derlis Gonzalez did not waver for a second. No sooner had Thiago Silva been penalised for handling the ball, the youngster grabbed it and made clear his intention of taking the spot-kick that offered Paraguay a golden chance to equalise with Brazil in the 2015 Copa America quarter-finals. He converted to make it 1-1, and the game ultimately went to extra time and then penalties.

Given this, it should not have surprised anyone that Gonzalez volunteered to take the fifth and decisive penalty in the shoot-out, or that he had the presence of mind to change where he put his strike, sending goalkeeper Jefferson the wrong way and Paraguay through to the semi-finals. It was another demonstration of the rare strength of character that he possesses for a player his age.

He would need this very quality to cope just minutes after the match, when he found out that his uncle Manuel had died from a heart attack, the drama and excitement having got the better of him.

"That night I went from joy to sadness in seconds. We were close and I knew what a fanatic he was, but I never imagined something like that happening. There were a lot of mixed emotions," Gonzalez reminisced to FIFA.com.

The subject did not come up randomly, as he and Paraguay are poised to be reunited with Brazil in one of their two upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers. "Obviously, after what happened that day, every game against them will be special. It left an imprint on me in more ways than one."

*From hot prospect to the real deal *In purely footballing terms, those exploits in Concepcion against heavyweight opponents in Brazil signalled Gonzalez's readiness to leave behind his tag as "the biggest prospect in Paraguayan football" and to begin really fulfilling his promise. "Except for Topo Caceres, no one objected to me taking the penalty. That gave me a lot of confidence. And then El Topo [The Mole, as Caceres is nicknamed] celebrated it more than anyone," he added light-heartedly.

Until the Copa America, Gonzalez was known as the forward who had made his senior debut for minnows Rubio Nu aged just 15 and impressed in the Paraguay team that contested the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013. However, he was also viewed through the lens of a short-lived early stint at Benfica, where he asked to be allowed to move back to his homeland after his first daughter, Karimi, was born.

While it is true that he then relaunched his career with Guarani and Olimpia, which in turn gave him the opportunity to return to Europe with Swiss side Basel, he had failed to nail down a place at senior international level. Indeed, there was a sizeable period in the wilderness after his first appearances for *La Albirroja *in 2014 before Ramon Diaz called him up for the Copa America, at which Paraguay finished fourth.

A tactical switch by Diaz had a hand in Gonzalez's return to prominence. "I'd always operated as a playmaker and felt most comfortable in a free role, playing off a penalty-box predator. But Ramon prefers me on the right and I'm only too happy to oblige, I have no problem adapting," said the skilful 5'8 (1.72m) star, who is equally adept at scoring goals and laying them on for others.

In fact, it is on the left wing that Gonzalez is shining at Dynamo Kiev, whom he joined after the Copa America, becoming the second most expensive Paraguayan footballer ever and the first player from the country to play in the Ukrainian league. "It's another position, but it enables me to cut in on to my stronger foot. At first I found it tough, because there's less space in the Ukraine, but it's stood me in good stead to improve," he noted.

*Keen to keep kicking on *Diaz is clearly a big believer in Gonzalez's talents, having started him in all of Paraguay's four qualifiers on the road to Russia so far – faith that the young gun repaid by notching the winner against Venezuela in the opening round of action. This was another poignant moment for the attacker: "I scored that goal on my uncle's birthday. The way the ball fell to me, it was as if he'd sent me a blessing."

Gonzalez's verdict on the qualifying campaign up to this point is positive: "Seven points from a possible 12 is a good start. Ramon has played to our strengths and now he's working on aspects to improve on, like trying to keep the ball a bit more and make the most of our chances," he said, before going on to pick out the above-mentioned old heads Santa Cruz and Valdez as his role models. "Going from watching them on the pitch to having them as team-mates is a dream come true."

Before the special encounter with Brazil in Asuncion, Paraguay take on surprise leaders Ecuador in Quito. "I'm not all that surprised, personally, given the quality of their players. But I'm glad we're facing them now, after a break [from qualifying], because that may have halted their momentum," argued Gonzalez, who spent his own recent birthday – his 21st, on 20 March – on a flight.

After that, attention will turn to the Brazilians. "It'll be different to the Copa America. They're a more settled side, but so are we. Maybe they'd take a point," ventured Gonzalez, whose partner is all set to give birth to his second child, Isabela. "I hope she's not born on the day of the Brazil game," he added with a smile.

But would Paraguay be pleased with a share of the spoils? "We're aiming for all six points, although four wouldn't be too bad. It's important you win your home matches, but there are teams who have picked up some big results on the road, and that puts pressure on you to do the same. We don't want to have to watch another World Cup from the outside," he concluded.

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