Diego Gavilán is a Paraguayan pioneer, aged 19 he became the first player from the landlocked nation to play football in England when he joined Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle side in 2000. He can remember his only goal, the first by a Paraguayan in the Premier League, as if it was yesterday.
“It was a corner to Coventry” he begins “Gary Speed won the header and the ball rebounded then fell to Alan [Shearer], he played a pass into the space in front of me seeing that I had made a run down the right and I picked up the pass hit it across the goalkeeper and Gracias a Dios it was a goal”
Diego was more than happy to talk about his experiences with the Magpies and his successful football career on a balmy Friday evening in Asunción at the San Ignacio de Loyola school where he is currently training 4-8 year olds as he continues to study for his coaching exams. Diego explained that he was surprised to be sold ”directly from Paraguay to England at such a young age.” and also because he had been expecting to turn out for another team in black in white “at the time I was linked heavily with Juventus. But their scout, Gordon Milner came from Newcastle and did everything practically overnight and so I went there”. He mentioned that the Juventus official was in Paraguay with a contract but got there too late.
Diego said England was “very end-to-end, very physical, the person who wins the most 50/50 balls is the most loved in the stadium” a contrast to what he had experienced in Paraguay. In only his second game for the club they faced treble-winners Manchester United and as El Pampero raced for a pass over the top he was greeted by a stiff challenge from Jaap Stam “He [Stam] left his leg out for me and said ‘Welcome to the Premier League’” laughs Gavilán as he recounts that match. “They weren’t happy, we won 3-0!”
Adaptation was the key word on the Guaraní midfielder’s arrival in Tyneside “it was a totally different world, not just for me but for my family…as Bobby [Robson] told me you need at least six months to adapt yourself” before heaping praise on the former England manager. “It was a privilege to have him as a coach and the way he looked after me and at my young age” explained Diego before adding ”he was like my father”. The former Barcelona coach even racked his brain for Spanish phrases to make things easier in training for his Paraguayan player “if things got too complicated in Spanish he would look to [Nolberto] Solano to act as interpreter”.
The instructions from Alan Shearer were simple ““He just said to me ‘cross me the ball, cross me the ball and cross me the ball’” says Gavilán with a smile. He only had good things to say about Shearer who he considered “A top professional” and dismissed any thoughts that the geordie idol acted like a superstar “he is very humble, very easygoing even though he might have been a God to the fans”
It was impossible to conduct the interview without asking Diego about his former teammate Gary Speed who he considered “one of the pillars” of that talented Newcastle side along with Alan Shearer. “I was on holiday, I found out on Twitter…it was such a shock” laments Diego “I’ll never forget that when I was called up to the 2002 World Cup… he [Speed] came up to me and said ‘Congratulations because you are one of three players to represent us at the World Cup with Shay Given and Kieron Dyer’” Diego explains. “At that time I wasn’t used that much in the first team and that gesture by him to get up and go out of his way to congratulate me is something I’ll remember…he was an example as a professional, a person and a father”
In the end, maybe for his own youthful impatience to want to play, Diego didn’t stay on at Newcastle and after a brief spell with Udinese he returned to South America where he enjoyed plenty of highs. One of the difficulties was being a substitute at Newcastle but a regular starter for the national team and ultimately he felt he needed games to ensure he kept his place with the albirroja.
In Brazil he won the Gaucho state championship three times with Inter and was narrowly denied a Brazilian championship medal in the controversial 2005 campaign which Diego still calls “The robbery of Kia [Joorabchian]”. The midfielder was Gaucho champion again with Gremio under current Brazil boss Mano Menezes but also suffered his biggest heartache in the 2007 Copa Libertadores losing in the final to a Juan Román Riquelme-inspired Boca Juniors just the day after his son was born.
Diego Gavilán finishes the chat saying he is thankful to football for “the friendships” he made and to have been able “to live his dream of going to a World Cup, two times”. It was a very genuine statement from a down-to-earth guy who seems to have enjoyed every minute he spent at training, on a pitch and can look back on some wonderful memories.
By Ralph Hannah