From Rosario to Pamplona: The struggles of Chimy Ávila
Written by Alex Brotherton
As he lay on the pitch at El Sadar, clutching his left knee and breathing hard, it occurred to Ezequiel Ávila that his season may well be over. It wasn’t just Osasuna fans with heads in hands, it was supporters all over Spain. The man who turns 26 in February has had such a huge impact in such a short time, but this is just another challenge he will have to overcome. And history suggests he will.
As he sat on his bed and wept, Ezequiel Ávila tried to come to terms with the fact that football had passed him by. As a child, he had dreamt of becoming a professional footballer. But there he sat and cried, a 20-year-old demolition worker who hadn’t kicked a ball in 18 months. Growing up in the north-west of Rosario (Lionel Messi’s birthplace, no less), Ávila later reflected that “here you go to school, play soccer or become a criminal”. For a while, that latter option appeared the most likely.
It’s fair to say that since those dark days, the boy known as “Chimy” has come a long way. Now playing for Osasuna in his second season in LaLiga, he has a fanatical following, not just in Pamplona but all of Spain. For many, the love affair started on 27th August 2018 at San Mamés where Athletic Club were hosting his team at the time, newly-promoted Huesca. As the hosts scrambled to clear a Huesca counter-attack, Chimy dropped to the edge of the box before receiving the ball from a teammate. His back to goal, he first-time flicked it up with his right foot and, in one continuous movement, spun 180 degrees and unleashed a vicious left-foot volley into the top-left corner of the goal. The ball never touched the floor. It was mind-bendingly difficult skill, a goal more fitting of a cup final than an early-season encounter. But Chimy’s skills go far beyond this wonder strike.
Ávila usually occupies the “enganche” role – a central playmaker, involved in every attacking move; he drops deep as others make runs off him, he runs in behind, he splays balls out wide and darts into the box. Off the ball, he dances the tango of his homeland, moving quick then slow, holding a position then moving in a flash. But what makes Chimy stand out is his work ethic. A long ball over the top becomes a nightmare scenario for defenders as he shoulder-barges them powerfully and lunges for control of the football, threatening to create that half-yard of space and that half-chance. “If you don’t fight, you won’t win anything,” he said in June 2018, before that ridiculous goal. “I never give up lost causes.” Although he very nearly did, in terms of his own life before LaLiga…
Throughout his childhood spent living in a small house with his parents and six siblings, like most young boys in Argentina he played football at every opportunity, and was scouted as a youngster by local team Tiro Federal. But financially, Ávila’s family suffered so that he could play. Earning only 300 pesos a month (less than £45) on a pro contract at Tiro, while also holding down a regular job, Chimy considered quitting multiple times. But his family always encouraged him to continue. Chimy would even ride a horse to training to save the bus fare to buy food instead, but he would leave the horse two blocks away, so that his teammates wouldn’t find out. And the ride was about to get tougher.
In February 2013, kit and equipment went missing from Tiro Federal’s headquarters, and Ávila was arrested for theft and sacked by the club – but he has always maintained his innocence. Then after an unsuccessful three-month spell in MLS at Seattle Sounders which was curtailed by injury, he almost gave up on football completely. He worked in demolition, swinging five-kilogramme sledgehammers to knock down walls. Chimy was a man of faith as well as football, and his wife reassured him: “If it’s part of God’s plan, it’ll work out”. But his faith would be tested further.
Chimy became a father at 20, but there were health complications for his daughter Eluney. For months after the birth she stayed in hospital, her life in serious danger, and the medical bills grew to astronomical levels. Since he wasn’t a professional player, he didn’t qualify for the union’s medical insurance, but they helped him out regardless. Miraculously, Eluney recovered, and thanks to the sheer generosity of his agent Ariel Galarza, the bills for her treatment were paid, no questions asked.
Back in the football world, the good fortune continued. Chimy’s agent knew Edgardo Bauza, then manager of San Lorenzo, and his assistant José Di Leo. Galarza persuaded one of Argentina’s biggest clubs to take a punt on his client, and so, in April 2015, Chimy moved to Buenos Aires.
But 2 goals and 28 appearances later, he hadn’t made his mark. Local journalist Will Dalton recalls: “You could tell he had good raw attributes - pace, strength, decent technique. He wasn’t a regular starter and was used as an impact sub, but if I’m honest, without the actual ‘impact’.” Comparisons with his fellow countrymen didn’t help. “There were some parallels with Ángel Correa in terms of a young lad from Rosario arriving at the club having had a tough background, but Correa made a big impact at San Lorenzo and everyone knew he was destined for big things in Europe,” Dalton said.
Still, Chimy would get another chance, again thanks to contacts. Leo Franco, a former teammate at San Lorenzo, brought him on loan to SD Huesca, from a city of only 53,000 people, playing in Spain’s second division. On matchday 35, the 24-year-old turned their season: with Huesca trailing at home to Barcelona B, he assisted the equaliser before moments later scoring himself. Huesca ran out 2-1 victors to end a two-month, eight-game winless run and reignite their promotion push for LaLiga.
Chimy had finally grabbed his opportunity, and with his loan extended for another season, his cult status grew, as did his repertoire of spectacular finishes and thunderbolts: an unstoppable volley against Eibar, a smart side-footed finish at Villarreal and of course his wondergoal against Athletic Club. Unfortunately, ten goals and two assists from the man nicknamed “El Comandante” (The Commander) weren’t enough to keep Huesca up, but his personal stock had never been higher. Osasuna snapped him up, paying San Lorenzo just €2.7 million for his services in July 2019.
As well as the stats (nine goals and three assists in 20 games), and the fruitful partnerships with Rubén García and Roberto Torres, above all it’s Chimy’s never-say-die attitude shaped by all the events of his life which charmed the El Sadar faithful. “I learnt a lot at Huesca and I felt right at home. Now, I’m getting a lot of love in Pamplona”, Chimy said. “I’ve always said if a player is doing well mentally, he’s doing well on the pitch”. But just like that, his luck was about to change again…
On 24th January this year in Osasuna’s 2-0 home win over Levante, Ávila landed awkwardly after challenging for the ball and was stretchered off in the 58th minute. Although the drums continued at El Sadar, there was palpable concern in the crowd, and scans confirmed the worst: a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and his season was over. Chimy’s determination though knows no bounds. Whilst a video emerged on social media of his daughter in tears on learning of her father’s injury, Chimy himself posted on social media in the next few days: “I had a hard time getting to where I’ve got. It was like climbing the Pyrenees. But I feel prepared to do it again, because I only care about the happiness of the people who chant my name and enjoy The Commander.”
The time away from the training pitch will be valuable thinking time for Chimy – not just of what’s gone but also on what could be to come. His contract at Osasuna has another three-and-a-half years left, and should he see it out, he would be able to obtain a Spanish passport, so that he doesn’t take up an overseas squad place. Even if he doesn’t, it seems a LaLiga club is most likely to meet his €25 million release-clause fee - there have been recent links with Barcelona hoping to soften the blow of losing Luis Suárez to injury, as well as Atlético Madrid and Sevilla. Looking further afield, he could even one day be joined in Spain by his 18-year-old brother, Gastón, who is currently at Boca Juniors.
For now though, it’s all about rest and recovery. Chimy needs to conserve his superhuman energy as he starts the rehabilitation process. Osasuna know he’ll come back, and the danger for the rest of LaLiga is, with that desire instilled in him by years of struggle, he’s sure to come back stronger.
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