Diego Godín and the story of football’s ultimate survivor

Diego Godín and the story of football’s ultimate survivor

To put it lightly, Diego Godín and Destiny’s Child don’t have much in common. Yet the footballer and the pop group can both sing for the rest of their days about being survivors, who haven’t given up, who haven’t stopped, who have kept working harder and who have made it.

That was so frighteningly true when a four-year-old Godín was handed a literal crash course in swimming when he landed in a stream during one of his family’s regular Sunday excursions to the great Uruguayan outdoors. He and his sister Lucía – older by two years – had been wandering as their parents Júlio and Iris started their fire. As the siblings were trying to catch some fish on the river edge, the young boy splashed into the fast-flowing waters.

Panicking, Lucía ran to find her parents, but when the trio returned they found the youngest member of the family inching his way back towards the side of the river. Although he had not yet been taught to swim and although he was wearing heavy winter clothing, the one-day captain of the Uruguay national team had flapped his arms enough in pure survival instinct that he had discovered a way to escape the clutches of the water.

Having shown Mother Nature who was boss, he later did the same to the school bullies. When one of the older – and bigger – kids made joke after joke at his expense, little Godín decided that he’d had enough and took matters into his own hands. He waited for the bully outside his classroom, saw him exit and punched him in the nose. It wasn’t exactly something from the ‘how to responsibly deal with bullies’ handbook, but again he’d found a way to get the job done.

This was a boy who was born to survive.

Godín is as much a survivor in a footballing sense as he is in any other aspect of life, having had to work so hard just to make it onto the bottom rung of the professional footballing ladder. In the year 2003, he was a 17-year-old attacking midfielder and his hopes of making it as a footballer were narrowing.

His club Defensor Sporting did not consider him good enough to keep on their books and he was let go. It was an especially bitter blow given that Godín, as a 15-year-old, had given up his tiny and tranquil hometown of Rosario – with a population of just 10,000 – in order to relocate to the bustling Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, where Defensor are based, while he had also given up his other sports of swimming, athletics, volleyball and basketball in order to put all his eggs in the footballing basket. At that club, he played as a number 10, but he struggled for playing time and just a few weeks before the new season was due to begin, his name was read out in a ruthless trimming of the roster.

He packed up his things with tears in his eyes and returned to Rosario, promising to never play football again. He did take a short break, but this survivor wasn’t going to throw in the towel just yet and he was able to secure a trial at Club Atlético Cerro, one of the more modest Montevideo clubs.

William Lemus, the youth director, was impressed by what he saw, even though he was up front in telling Godín that his teams didn’t play with a number 10 and that he’d have to reinvent himself. The teenager did well enough on the right of midfield to earn a contract and a spot in their fifth-tier team, costing just 840 Uruguayan pesos – equivalent to around 25 euros in today’s money. 

Determined to squeeze the most out of this last chance, Godín even did what he was told when his 1.87 metre-frame was asked to fill in at centre-back to cover some of the back line’s suspensions and injuries. He certainly wasn’t happy about it and later admitted that he wanted to be the man scoring the goals, but Godín begrudgingly took on the challenge and he excelled. “He was humble enough to accept the task,” Lemus later recalled. “He thought that he couldn’t play that position, but he was technically good enough and played well in the air.”

In fact, Godín played so well that neither he nor his coaches looked back. “As he trained and trained he learned [the centre-back position] and began to like it,” Lemus said, who shaped the future Uruguay captain with his tactical cookie-cutter. The first team coach Gerardo Pelusso also liked seeing Godín playing in central defence and the player was very quickly promoted to the third tier team and then, still in the year 2003, he made it to the first team, which played in the first division.

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He became a regular and was soon handed the captain’s armband, with his play then earning another move, but this time in a positive sense. In 2006, the player – now a fully-fledged defender, as well as a Uruguay international – earned a switch to Nacional, one of the city and country’s top two teams.

From the brink of failure, Godín had fulfilled the dream of most Uruguayan football-obsessed kids, with his rejection by Defensor ultimately nudging him in the right direction. “Sometimes a fall helps you to reverse just enough to come back with more momentum,” Godín would later tell Ana Laura Lissardy for her book Vamos Que Vamos about the Uruguayan national team. “If I hadn’t changed team and if I hadn’t changed to defence, I might not be here now.”

So partly thanks to the current of fate and partly thanks to his ability to fight against the tide, Diego Godín made it as a professional footballer. His next test would see him take on Spain, and win.

“Diego Godín is a young central defender, who we believe can take Europe by storm,” Villarreal president Fernando Roig said on 2 August 2007, the day that the Uruguayan was presented as a Villarreal player in front of a crowd of 500 fans – or, to put it another way, in front of a full 1 percent of the small Valencian Community town’s population.

He had left Montevideo behind him to move out of both his comfort zone and time zone, joining what he considered “one of the best clubs in Europe’s toughest league”. As if switching continent wasn’t difficult enough, the player had the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Roberto Ayala, who had left the club for Real Zaragoza before playing a single match. 

Fans had been looking forward to big things from the former Valencia centre-back and they now passed many of those expectations on to this skinny Uruguayan 21-year-old, even if coach Manuel Pellegrini’s initial plan was for him to back up the experienced duo of Fabricio Fuentes and Pascal Cygan.

As always, though, the player found a way to survive and after Pellegrini handed him his debut in a UEFA Cup game against BATE Borisov, he never looked back. His first 12 minutes of La Liga action were handed to him six days later, after which Godín started and finished 16 consecutive matches for the Yellow Submarine. By the time the season had finished he had racked up 1,996 minutes in the Villarreal yellow, the seventh most in the team that finished the season in second place, the club’s highest ever finish. Godín had come and he had conquered.

The 2008-09 season didn’t get off to as happy a start for the centre-back, who conceded the game-levelling penalty at Osasuna’s El Sadar stadium in the first week of the season, earning a red card too for the professional foul on Masoud Shojaei. One year previously he had scored his first – and, to that point, only – Villarreal goal at El Sadar, but this time around he had allowed the Pamplona-based team a chance to cancel out Marcos Senna’s brilliant free-kick.

The episode left Godín with an 18-day break from Villarreal first team action, as a result of his one-match league suspension and the international break, but his next outing was no small matter. Having qualified for the Champions League, Villarreal were drawn in a group with Celtic, Aalborg and Manchester United, with the Old Trafford date the first on the schedule. Godín had to get back his mind back in the zone quickly. And he did.

Against the eventual finalists, he and his central defensive partner Gonzalo Rodríguez were excellent, stifling the likes of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Ryan Giggs over the course of 90 minutes, deservedly taking home a clean sheet and a 0-0 draw. The now-22-year-old flung his forehead at cross after cross, calculating every jump with the precision timing and rhythm of an NFL wide receiver, something few defenders can master that early into a season, especially after two and a half weeks out of the side. That team would go on to finish second in their group, before swatting aside Panathinaikos in the last-16 to set up a revenge match against Arsenal, the team that had denied Villarreal a place in the 2006 final.

After a 1-1 first leg scoreline at El Madrigal, the Uruguayan protagonist would once again be at the centre of some penalty drama, only this time he was wrongly whistled against, while the consequences were also far more serious than they had been in Pamplona. Although trailing 3-1 on aggregate, Villarreal had introduced attack-minded substitutes, Nihat Kahveci and Ariel Ibagaza, and they were looking lively with 20 minutes remaining, well aware that two unanswered goals would see them through.

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The ball then broke to the twinkle toe feet of Theo Walcott, but Godín flicked one of his long legs with the accuracy and speed of an Olympic fencer, getting his boot on the ball before the young Walcott could make the drag-back he was attempting. Even better, the ball had bounced off the Englishman’s other foot to trickle out for a goal kick.

Or so he thought. Incredibly, and after some hesitation, referee Wolfgang Stark pointed to the spot and then dished out a second yellow to Sebastián Eguren for protesting. Robin van Persie duly converted the penalty and the Champions League dream was over for Villarreal.

A fifth-placed league finish meant that they wouldn’t be returning to Europe’s premier competition the following year either. Instead, Godín and co had to settle for the Europa League, but the team simply wasn’t the same with Pellegrini having departed for the Real Madrid dugout. They could only manage seventh spot in the league table, even if Godín did continue to excel in defence.

A terrific performance with the Uruguayan national team at the South Africa World Cup only raised his stock further and it quickly became clear that Villarreal was about to trampoline Godín towards a bigger club and a brighter – although less yellow – future, just as the Valencian Community club was about to freefall to the second division. As Villarreal fell, Godín soared and he would soon be a Liga champion.

“I’ve always found headers easy,” claims Godín. The little pocket of red-and-white-decked Atlético Madrid fans sat behind the net in the highest corner of the Camp Nou could testify to that.

On 17 May 2014, Diego Godín and his Atlético Madrid team-mates travelled to the Camp Nou for the final game of the La Liga season, aware that they needed just one point to claim a first league title in 18 years. It had a familiar feel to the final match of the 1950 World Cup, when Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium was packed with Brazilian fans expecting a coronation, not a contest. “These are the world champions”, Brazilian newspaper O Mundo prematurely claimed, before Uruguay stunned them with a 2-1 victory that has become known as the ‘Maracanaço’.

Local Catalan daily Mundo Deportivo may have held back from such a bold headline that morning, simply saying “The Final”, but most of those flicking through its pages that morning, from Tarragona to Girona and from Poblenou to Les Corts, thought that Barcelona had salvaged their season after plenty of ups and downs. Once again, they were denied by a Uruguayan.

It had looked bleak for Los Rojiblancos when their main two attacking threats, Diego Costa and Arda Turan, limped off in the first half and it got even worse when Alexis Sánchez rammed a volley into the top corner from the tightest of angles. One-nil down at half-time, they returned to play the second half of their lifetimes. Four minutes into the second 45 minutes, the yellow-and-black-shirted visitors won a corner and Barcelona’s worst nightmares were realised. Gabi. Godín. Goal.

In their time of need, the club captain set up the man who always acted as if he too was wearing the armband. The Uruguayan centre-back rose the highest and, like a pilot told he cannot land just yet, he hung in the air long enough for the spring of his neck muscles to score the vital equalising goal. It was his seventh of an incredible campaign, his fourth season since moving from Villarreal in 2010 in a €8 million euro transfer – a sum 320,000 times the size of his first transfer fee. Godín had become as vital to Atlético as he had been to Villarreal, scoring goals at the right end and preventing them at the other.

As he picked himself up from the bottom of the inevitable pile-up and walked back to his own half kissing the club badge, Godín and his Atlético team-mates faced the mighty task of keeping Barcelona’s star-studded attack shut out for the next 40 minutes. And that’s what he and they did. He huffed, he puffed, he kept opposite-centre-back-turned-centre-forward Gerard Piqué at bay and he survived what was one of the most memorable second halves of football in the club’s history, even if the memories of that half for many Atlético fans are limited to the fleeting moments they caught as they peered through the fingers that held their heads in their hands.

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Atlético Madrid had clung on to their lead like moss on a damp garden wall and they were champions, memorably forcing Barcelona to sell their unused blue and red confetti to second division champions SD Eibar.

One week after securing the Liga title, Godín was back in action and back on the scoresheet, this time in the Champions League final against Real Madrid. He nodded the opener over Iker Casillas that night, but it wasn’t meant to be for Atlético, who came up short at the final hurdle after a magnificent European journey. Yet for Godín and for many players in Los Rojiblancos’ squad, they were able to quickly put that heartbreaking night in Lisbon behind them as they had a plane to Brazil to catch.

For Godín, his international career took an exciting and significant turn for the better in his home continent given that he left as the team’s captain, inheriting the armband from the injured Diego Lugano after the disappointing opening defeat to Costa Rica. His defensive partner suffered an injury in his knee and that left Godín the responsibility of leading the team out for a do-or-die match against England, with the tough task made all the more difficult when the defender received a ninth minute booking for handball.

Yet, as he always does, Godín found a way to survive, avoiding a second yellow card even if he came close to earning it on a couple of occasions. In doing so, he was able to help his team to concede no more than once – to Wayne Rooney – which meant Luis Suárez’s double kept Los Charrúas alive and kicking in Group D. A few days later, against Italy at the Arena das Dunas, he played the goalscoring defender role, heading a corner back across goal and into the bottom corner in a similar effort to his league-winning effort a month previously.

Once again, he was the one mopping up at one end, before kicking over his opponents’ bucket of dirty water at the other. Chaos-stifler and chaos-causer. With their 1-0 win over the Azzurri, Uruguay were through and Godín led his side out once again – Lugano was still out injured – for their last-16 match against Colombia at the Maracanã, a stadium which finally got its revenge on the Uruguayans via a wonder James Rodríguez goal, which was voted FIFA’s goal of 2014. “There’s nothing you can do about that,” Godín told FIFA TV of James’ wonder volley.

So the World Cup dream was over for the year of 2014, but that does not mean Godín hasn’t enjoyed national team success over the years. He has a Copa América medal to his name, even if injury restricted him to no more than a few minutes in the final, while he also formed part of the most successful Uruguayan World Cup squad in 40 years when the 2010 group reached the semi-finals in South Africa. Injury also limited his playing time there, with the player having to come off at half-time of the last-16 win over South Korea, but when he was available he was on the pitch and his team were better for it.

Now the full-time captain, Godín is probably his country’s most important player along with Luis Suárez, and has already broken the 100 appearance mark at just 30 years of age. That certainly isn’t bad for a kid who was once worth just 840 pesos, meaning that his registration rights were once cheaper than the most affordable ticket to see him win that 100th cap against Jamaica at the Copa América Centenario – even if that says as much about the high prices at that tournament as it does about the 2003 transaction.

At Atlético Madrid, by helping their goals against record to read like binary code, Godín has already won six trophies, the medals and miniature replicas of which he keeps proudly displayed in his living room. He is already closing in on 300 club appearances and is one of the first names on Diego Simeone’s teamsheet each week, evidenced by the fact that he was the most-used player in the 2016-17 squad by the time of the winter break.

The red blood he bleeds on the field, which he has done a lot, he bleeds for Atlético, like he did when he played the entire 90 minutes of Los Colchoneros’ famous 4-0 win over Real Madrid in 2015 despite suffering a broken nose in a collision with Sami Khedira inside the first 10 minutes.

Quite simply, Diego Godín is the most complete centre-back in world football; a battler, a fighter, a goal-scorer, a goal-preventer, a leader, a captain and a survivor. That little boy in the river did not give up, he did not stop when told he was cut by Defensor Sporting, he kept working harder at Cerro, Nacional and Villarreal and he made it at Atlético Madrid. That was this child’s destiny.

By Euan McTear @emctear

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