Long Reads

Chimy Ávila: The Relentless Comandante Who Picked Football over Crime

In his neighbourhood, Empalme Graneros, kids were given two, barely three, options to choose from when they were growing up: school, football and crime. Luis Ezequiel Ávila dismissed the first one, and when life pushed him to face the dilemma between the other two, he decided against going with what the majority of the children in his barrio considered as the obvious – yet risky – one.

Ezequiel was born on February 6, 1994, in Rosario, Argentina. His relentlessness earned him the nickname ‘Chimy’ – which comes from the spicy chimichurri sauce, with the word picante (spicy) also translating as ‘naughty’- coined by his father, Luis Ernesto.

When Chimy was young, Luis Ernesto split up his marriage with Graciela, who undertook the demanding mission of raising nine kids – five girls and four boys.

Like other kids of his age, Chimy would observe on TV his idol, Juan Román Riquelme, and scrutinize his every dribble, faint and free-kick. The following day he would rush to the neighbourhood’s pitch and relentlessly try to imitate his hero’s moves.

It wouldn’t take long for local scouters to spot his talent. Tiro Federal moved fast and snapped the youngster. By that time, he would meet his current wife, María Boselli, and he would start combining football with various jobs to support his family.

When he didn’t go to training barefoot, he would borrow his brother’s horse and ride to Tiro Federal’s training ground in order to save money that his mother could use to put food on the table. Chimy would leave the horse two blocks away to avoid being seen by his teammates. It wouldn’t take long for them to realise what he was up to, yet they never judged him. Solidarity and brotherhood were the glue that kept those kids together.

At the age of 16, Chimy was invited by Mauricio Pochettino for a trial at Espanyol. He stayed in Catalonia for six months, but he was unable to get an EU passport and returned to Tiro Federal.

Chimy’s quality made him stand out against first team professionals in training. In 2010, aged 16, he made his official debut and went on to score seven goals in 50 games in his first two seasons in the Argentinian football’s second tier, Primera B Nacional.

When he came of age, Chimy and María decided to get married and soon they would learn that a new family member would arrive in their lives. Everything was going in such a good direction, when one day police knocked on their door to arrest Chimy who was accused by his club of stealing football material from Tiro Federal’s premises.

“They wouldn’t let me train despite having a contract,” he recalled in 2018 in an interview for Clarín.

“They had me two years without playing. I lost two years of my career and they kicked out my brother-in-law and my two brothers who played at the club.

“To top it off, after a year, my wife became pregnant. We had no job and nowhere to go to live.”

His agent urged him to train, but Chimy was totally discouraged. He did some maths in his head and he concluded that he couldn’t afford playing football. He took on a job as a construction worker, swinging five-kg sledgehammers to knock down walls. Life was becoming increasingly complicated and it was then when he was presented with an intriguing dilemma.

“A life of crime is always the easiest option,” he confessed years later in a La Liga documentary. “You might end up with a lot of money, but you don’t sleep well at night.”

He did everything it’d take to avoid criminal life. “From playing in the first team, from being known, I went to collecting cardboard in a car,” he told Cadena Ser. “I’m not ashamed. Getting a job in Argentina is more difficult than committing a crime. You ask for a job and few people give one to you. You ask for a gun and there are more people who’d give it to you. I thank God he put me in that path and not into crime.”

Chimy wasn’t always religious. His childhood was etched with a loose Christianity, but a series of events which have marked his life made him turn to God. His first daughter, Eluney, was born healthy – a normal baby. However, 10 days after her birth, she had to be hospitalised with a severe respiratory syncytial virus.

Chimy was broke and asked for financial help. His family could barely afford a private hospital, but the football players’ association gave him a hand, helping him out although he was not a professional player.

“I rode my bike for 30km to drop off my wife’s bus ticket so that she’d be able to afford a cup of coffee,” he told LaLiga. “She’d head to the hospital at 7:00 am and didn’t get back until 11:00 pm. It didn’t matter if it rained, I had to bike to work, to the hospital and everywhere else.”

His agent pushed him again to train and clear his mind through football, but Chimy refused to do so. Years later he revealed that he suffered from depression at the age of 19.

“One day I was sitting at home and tears ran down my face,” he recalled. “I saw that my teammates were professional players, but I hadn’t played a year and a half. My wife asked me why I was crying and I told her that football had gotten away from me.

“Sometimes, you make bad choices and things slip through your fingers. She said: ‘If it’s part of God’s plan, it’ll work out. So I trained and my agent helped me out.”

Although he would cry out to God for help, he wasn’t fully convinced that miracles do indeed happen.

“We spent a day kneeling on the bed praying and asking God [to help],” he told Clarín.

“The next day, when my wife went to visit [my daughter], she had been moved to a normal room. It was something incredible for how her situation was. The doctors told me that it was a miracle because the next day the baby was well.”

Eluney stayed in the private hospital for two months. When it was time for her to leave, Chimy couldn’t afford to pay the bill. Had it not been for his agent and a close friend, between both of whom they covered the costs, Chimy would need to work day and night to pay his debt.

With Eluney safe and sound, Chimy was able to focus on training and his hard work would yield positive results. One popular story has it that San Lorenzo monitored the player on the recommendation from the current Atletico Madrid forward and fellow Rosarino, Ángel Correa.

The Primera División side, which had recently reached the Club World Cup final, decided to give Chimy a second opportunity. He signed for San Lorenzo in February 2015, but struggled to get playing time. In two years, he featured in a total of 28 games, yet he averaged just 23 minutes per match.

Chimy was hungry for first-team football and asked to leave the club. At San Lorenzo he’d met Leo Franco, who retired at Huesca before becoming their sporting director. The Segunda División side came knocking and he decided to make the transatlantic trip to Spain.

His adaptation at Huesca was anything but easy, but Chimy wouldn’t give up. Another obstacle, another battle for the Argentine. Upon his arrival, they told him to avoid mentioning the word ‘promotion’ in his press conference talks. Chimy wouldn’t compromise. He dreamt himself playing in the top-flight and he would do anything to accomplish his objective.

His seven goals and two assists in 35 games assisted Huesca’s efforts to achieve promotion. Chimy soon became an idol and hundreds of people would line up outside a local butcher shop to get an autograph signed by their hero – their ‘comandante’.

“[My family] likes to watch the Argentine news and one day another video from the Falklands came out,” recalled Chimy. “I love the people who sacrificed their lives for us and I was telling my daughter [about the war story].

“One day, when I dropped her off at school, she stood at the door saluting like a commander. She said she greeted me like that because I was the family commander: ‘You are going to fight the way those people fought and every goal you score, you’re going to have to celebrate it like this.’

Motivated by the fans’ love and his daughters’ insistence, he asked to extend his loan deal for another season despite interest from other LaLiga Santander clubs.

Chimy, who by the had been cleared by the Argentine court of all involvement in the case of Tiro Federal’s stolen football material, hit the ground running in his first season in the top flight and shined with his performances for a struggling Huesca side. His 10 goals and two assists in 35 games couldn’t help the team avoid relegation. Huesca returned to the second division, yet Chimy wouldn’t go down with them.

Amid interest from several Spanish clubs, Osasuna snatched the Argentine in exchange for 2,7 million euros, while his buyout clause was set at 25 million euros.

“We had to conquer his heart; there’s an emotional element to it,” Osasuna’s sporting director, Braulio Vázquez told the Guardian. “I said to Chimy: ‘Imagine the whole of El Sadar chanting: Chimy! Chimy!’ He laughed at that: ‘I can see it already!’

“He had other offers but this was the place for him. I told him maybe at Betis, say, the fans like a nutmeg more but here, if you sprint back 50 metres, kill yourself to defend, you’re an idol.”

And idol he became. Chimy netted 11 and assisted another three goals in 22 games in his first few months at Osasuna. Meanwhile, some 568 km to the east in the Catalan capital, Barcelona were in search of a forward to cover for Luis Suárez who would be sidelined until the end of the season due to an injury.

As reported by various Spanish media, Chimy was one of the players the Blaugrana monitored. The bricklayer from Empalme Graneros had managed to establish himself as a top-flight striker and had attracted interest from one of Europe’s elite clubs – the team for which his idol, Riquelme, played in the past.

Then came the bad news: Chimy would miss the remainder of the season after picking up a cruciate ligament injury. It was a reminder that previous battles had been won, yet the war was to continue.

“Sometimes when I’m tired of going to rehab I think of people who have to go to cancer therapy and realise that mine is a crumb compared to the bread others have had to eat,” he told MARCA.

“So every day I get up with more strength and desire to come through this.”

His father once told him that he has to know where he comes from in order to know where he is going and Chimy is eager to implement Luis Ernesto’s advice word for word.

“I have made mistakes in my life, I have done evil things many times,” he admitted in an interview for Movistar+.

“I remember my childhood friends. He who today is not in prison, is in a cemetery.”

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