The latest edition of Asunción’s Superclasico, the biggest fixture of Paraguayan domestic football, saw a 14-year-old line up for Cerro Porteño against Club Olimpia’s Roque Santa Cruz – arguably the nation’s greatest ever player. Standing at 5’8”, fresh-faced and playing against players of more than twice his age Fernando Ovelar would have been forgiven had he been overwhelmed by the day, had he been star struck and unnerved. It soon became clear to the sell out crowd at the Estadio Defensores del Chaco this wouldn’t be the case.
Maybe you’ve seen the goal by now, but maybe not…
16 minutes into the derby, the ball was played high up towards Ovelar deep in to the opposition half. Somewhat bafflingly the adolescent beat his marker to win a header which dropped to a Cerro midfielder, whose name I won’t pretend to know.
Smelling his opportunity Ovelar darted in between Olimpia’s two centre-backs towards the penalty area. And, sticking to the script, the Cerro midfielder poked the pall through.
Barely breaking his stride, Ovelar finished first time. Displaying subtlety and tact far beyond his tender years he gently lifted the ball over Olimpia’s keeper and into his goal.
Young Fernando wheeled away in delight. Asuncion had its new prince.
Stoppage time drama saw the spoils shared. Ovelar was substituted on the hour and Santa Cruz made way with 5 minutes to go. Whilst the news of the child scorer rippled across the globe, for Paraguayan football the game was a symbolic changing of the guard. The swansong of a vintage generation of Paraguayan players and conceivably the nativity of another.
8 years ago, Paraguay were facing Spain in a World Cup Quarter-Final in Johannesburg. The game was cagey and goalkeepers, Casillas and Villar, stole the limelight with penalty saves at both ends. With 20 minutes to go and the game poised at 0-0 Paraguay’s Argentine manager Gerado Martino rolled the dice and sent on the nation’s darling, Mr Roque Santa Cruz.
It wasn’t to be. Paraguay lost 1-0 that night, but the game had been the pinnacle for a golden generation of Paraguayan footballers who went home heroes, having secured the countries best-ever World Cup finish.
An appearance in the Copa America final followed a year later but ended in defeat to Uruguay. The years that have followed have been bleak. After appearances in the four previous World Cups La Albirroja failed to qualify in 2014 and 2018.
The memory of the sides 2010 World Cup performance is accelerating into the distance. In fact, of the 14 who played in the Quarter Final with Spain, nine are now back playing in the Primera División – the nation’s capital Asunción their retirement home of choice.
Fernando Ovelar was just six and probably not old enough to understand the magnitude of the occasion when Paraguay played Spain in South Africa. That he outshone a 37-year-old Santa Cruz in El Superclasico serves to highlight the time passed since Paraguay’s finest hour and the need for new blood. At 14, Ovelar is unlikely to provide the national team with an immediate fix although his instant impact on the nation’s biggest stage does give a new-look side struggling to fulfil its potential hope for the future.
Santa Cruz announced his retirement as Paraguay’s all-time leading scorer on 1st September this year. Two days later, Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio took the reigns of the national team, with a capable emerging generation of players at his disposal. After signing for West Ham in the summer centre-back Fabián Balbuena has been an ever present this season. In Spain, 22-year-old Antonio Sanabria has shown glimpses of brilliance with Barca B, Sporting Gijon and now Real Betis. And Juan Iturbe, who made his debut for Paraguay at just 16 in 2009, is a player brought back into the fold by Osorio who has never reached his full potential having been purchased by Roma for €22million four years ago.
You’d imagine the 2019 Copa America will come too soon for Ovelar to get the opportunity to restore La Albirroja’s reputation on the international stage. The youngest South American to appear for their country was Aníbal Zapicán Falco for Uraguay at 15 years and 9 days and that was back in 1903.
Besides, various cases of boy wonders burning out or failing to live up to early hype gives Paraguayan football reason to curb its enthusiasm over the arrival of Asuncion’s latest dauphin. Santa Cruz made his debut in the mid-nineties as a 15 year old and was carted off to Germany just two years later. Babygol may have wound up Paraguay’s top scorer, but at the time of his move to Bavaria people were thinking more Ballon d’Or than Blackburn Rovers. Frustrated by injuries throughout his time in Europe, it’s hard not to point a finger at the three seasons he played with Olimpia before his seventeenth birthday as a possible explanation for his lack of physical durability.
Even closer to home, as recently as 2016 Cerro offloaded a wunderkind to Real Madrid. Debuting for Cerro at 15, Sergio Diaz was 18 when he made the move to the Bernabeu. Now on loan in Brazil at Corinthians he’s yet to make an appearance for Real.
The tale of too much too young is known the world over. Norwegian Martin Ødegaard, 19, is another who has struggled to live up to his billing in Spain after he moved to Real at in 2015. John Bostock is finally getting his career back on track at Toulouse. Having debuted for Palace at 15, a high profile move to Spurs never came good. And of course, it would rude not to mention Freddy Adu, whose calamitous career merits the ‘too much too young’ description more than any other.
So, is Ovelar going to be different? Well, just from the little footage available of the starlet it’s pretty clear that the kid’s got something special. His movement is decisive and direct and he plays with the sort of swagger that excites fans and infuriates defenders. He’s also from sound footballing stock, his grandfather, Geronimo, was in the Paraguay team who won the 1979 Copa America, the countries last footballing silverware, meaning Fernando always has destiny to fall back on if things start to wrong.
Inevitably the papers are already speculating over potential suitors. Reports claim Santa Cruz’s former employers, Manchester City, are keeping a close eye. But perhaps with the case of Diaz still fresh in their minds, Cerro have been clear that they intend to protect the development of their young striker. Manager, Fernando Jubero told El Pais: “We told him and the family to continue studying, to continue to train, to continue having the same life.”
The next few years will be crucial for Paraguay’s hottest commodity. He has already proved himself capable of performing at senior level, but the physical and physiological toll such early exposure can have on a player must be managed if Fernando Ovelar and the emerging generation is to equal the class of 2010.
Maybe Paraguayan football has learnt its lesson. Maybe if they can protect this one he’ll bring back the good times. Maybe, just maybe, with the careful preservation of Ovelar the emerging generation can even eclipse the class of 2010.