Chimy Avila is an open book and what a book. An extraordinary story inked on his skin: a tale of survival and miracle, of poverty, guns and crime, of football too, all of it told raw and unfiltered. “This is the journey so far,” he says, pointing at the tattoos all over his body, the messages and moments that made him. A journey always present and not finished yet. “People say don’t look back but I look back always because if you don’t know where you’ve come from you don’t know where you’re going,” he says.
It is written right here. Sitting on the bench at Osasuna’s Tajonar training ground, the Argentinian striker and one-man wrecking ball is busy explaining how he got his first tattoo by rigging up a wire and a pen to the motor from a DVD player. “When the motor was plugged in, the thing would spin and the needle came out the top,” he recalls. “That’s how we did it in the barrio, the neighbourhood. My first was the Rosario Central badge, where my brother plays now. We’re huge fans.” He was 10 years old. Many, many more followed.
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Did it look good? “Well,” Chimy says, and then he starts laughing, which is an answer of sorts. “It hurt, but I took it,” he smiles. “There have been a lot of wires, but as they say in Argentina, sarna con gusto no pica — ‘scabies with pleasure doesn’t itch’ — basically, all beauty comes at a cost. Every pleasure has pain.”
It could be his motto. Another one for the needle.
“My body is my life story. My left arm symbolises my mum. The legs, my brothers and sisters. My chest, my wife. My newborn daughter’s hands. On my leg is the koi fish that swims against the current. My brothers. Every moment of my life goes on.”
There’s a pause and Chimy laughs again. “There will come a time when there’s no room left. I’ve decided on small drawings now, so there’s still space for the moments that make up my life. Parents tell kids their stories with photos. When I am older, or when I leave for the other world, this tells mine. The problem is: when my daughter wants a tattoo, how am I going to say no? You try to guide them and if there’s one thing I’d like to have, it’s a clean body, to be an example.”
The story Chimy Avila can tell his two young daughters — and there are parts he admits he can’t yet, not without crying — begins in Empalme, Rosario. “A place,” he says, “where you didn’t know when the balaceo, the shooting, would start.”
And so it begins.
ESPN: Wait. Literally?!
Chimy Avila: Yeah, yeah. Always. You don’t know when it might happen to you. I have friends who died because of a stray bullet. I’ve got a lot of friends who are no longer here, others in jail. I had two paths. You can grow up studying, work and go down the right path, but that was hard. Why? Because the path on the left, the other side, was easier. Temptation was closer than study or work. It was easier to buy a revolver than a school book.
How did your family manage that?
I’m the fifth child. There are nine of us in all, and I was the first boy. My mum and my dad separated when I was young. My dad was always around, but it was more my mum. She’s done things I can’t regret because I’m grateful. I say to her “vieja, don’t be ashamed because everything you did you did for your kids. I am what I am because of you.” But she’s done things she feels are shameful.
What do you mean? Work, or…?
De todo, de todo. Everything, everything. Anything you can imagine, my mum did so that I could have boots, so my sister could have things for school. My mum cried. She would go out barefoot at night with my sisters looking for me so that I didn’t take the wrong path. I would go out with my friends, onto the street, aged 13 or 14 and do my travesuras [misbehaving], my things … It reached the point when other kids didn’t want to hang out with me because my mum would turn up, shouting that she’d call the police.
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My friends would be there, armed, and my sisters would be shouting “leave my brother alone!” And they’d be saying “your brother’s here because he wants to be.” Things change you: my family; my agents, the brothers Carlos and Jorge, my daughter. … But it was easier to be a delinquent than pick up a book.
When you say travesuras, what do you mean?
I would go around armed and fight in nightclubs, hanging out with people who went down the bad route all the time. When I say travesuras: whatever you can imagine, I did. Sometimes I think about it and I think how many innocent people were there that might have had the same needs I did, and I hurt them.
How does it make you feel?
Not bad, exactly, but I do regret many things. There was a time I decided that one of us had to change the path for all of us, for the family, and that could only be me. I’m not ashamed to say it: my dad had issues with alcohol and drugs. When we needed him, my dad was always there, always. Thank God. But he consumed all sorts of things. So, I said “someone has to change our path and if my dad is like that …” it was a circle and I said “someone has to break that.” And that was me.
It’s a very big responsibility, but I feel proud to be doing things the right way so my younger brothers, the family, don’t make the mistakes I made.
Was the ball the way out? Or is that a cliché?
I got into football as an escape route. I love football, but I went onto the pitch with the need to make money so I could bring food to my brothers and sisters. Although once you’re there you enjoy it, every touch. I knew I was good too. I said to myself “it’s down to me to take food home.”
As a professional, you can start to do that…
No: look, what I’m going to say is going to sound strange, and some people might not like this, but I started to think I was “professional” when I knew I had to take food home, so I was always professional. I stopped playing for fun as soon as I played for money, and that doesn’t just mean professional football.
I would go out on the streets late at night to take penalties to earn money for my mum. Very important people would come to the barrio and say: “take penalties for me, I’ll bet on you”. Now when I take a penalty, it’s fun. Why? Because when I was taking penalties then, it could be against a goalkeeper with a machine gun hanging round his neck.
Yes, yes, yes. Heavily armed people would be betting on me. They would say “score…”
And if you didn’t?
Nothing was going to happen. But you would be thinking “and if he stops a penalty, then what? Are they going to shoot me?” And you have to go and take it. The people betting on you are gente pesada — heavy, you know? You have to earn a living somehow. And I did my travesuras, still. I went out to take penalties, play cards, sell clothes. I met my wife at 14: we were just kids, and she was fundamental [for me]…
In what way?
My friends would go to a nightclub, say, or out to do their travesuras and she would say “you’re not going.” We would have terrible fights, really lay into each other. And she would say “every fight you’ll be proud of tomorrow.” She would join my family [dragging me off the streets]. Life lessons, even today. She says now “Ezequiel, put your foot on the ball, slow down, think what you want for you and your family. Because if you drive fast, you’re going to crash. And life is the same.”
You were “professional” in the sense that you played for money, but to become an actual professional…
You needed lots of things…
Did you lack those things?
When you’re in the barrio already playing for money, that dream of playing for the best teams in Spain or England or Germany, in Argentina itself, seems a long way away because the reality of life, living conditions, don’t allow for that. My dad couldn’t buy me boots, I couldn’t eat well…
What did you eat?
I laugh when I talk to my mum about this. I tell her: you were a liar. Every time we sat down to eat, she had a stomach ache or a head ache or something. And I realised later that it was so that she could give what food there was to us. As a father I understand, but it has taken me until now. At dinner time, it was any excuse.
You worked while playing?
I got a horse and cart, rode round collecting up cardboard, metal, aluminum, scrap. I did whatever I could do. I was a bricklayer, a painter, I cut hair… I didn’t like any of those jobs because I wanted to live off football. But I liked the feeling of doing it the hard way, honestly: getting up at 6 a.m., coming home at 10 p.m., knowing I hadn’t hurt anyone. That was the best work.
Because you had hurt people?
Yes. I feel regret thinking the people I hurt had the same difficulties my parents had, you know? I’ve done things that weigh on you sometimes, but it didn’t matter to me then; it mattered that my siblings ate. And I never hurt anyone with violence. I would “borrow” things, but no one can say El Chimy physically hurt anyone. Never, ever.
Are there people who would say “that Chimy was a son of a b—-?”
Yes, but the thing is I never hurt anyone from my barrio, where I lived. It was humble, poor. No one there can ever say “El Chimy took a sweatshirt from me,” “Chimy took that from me.” Never. People from outside, yes. I would go outside to bring things into the barrio. There was a code: you respect people from here.
Don’t s— on your own doorstep, as they say…
That’s it! Always. We say in Argentina “entre perros no nos vamos a mear los propios arboles” (“dogs don’t p— on each other’s trees”). The group of friends I had took things outside and brought them into the barrio. The other day I was talking to my wife and we started naming friends from then: so and so, so and so, so and so … and of 30 we named, 15 are dead, the other 15 in jail, you know?
Does that make you feel you were the lucky one? Or the strongest one?
Every night, I give thanks to God for putting the family I have in my path, because if not … My wife, my mum, my dad. My dad was tough and would fight to keep me in line. He used to say “do what I say, not what I do.” I was taking the wrong path and my family pushed me back. And they won.
Others helped, too: your agents, family friends…
I worked as a bricklayer with my dad [at a site run by] a very close friend of the family, to whom I will always be grateful, called Ariel Galarza. He gave me work so I wouldn’t take that other route. I had made my debut in primera div at [Argentine club] Tiro Federal at 15 or 16 years old, but then I had a problem with them and went two years without playing. Even then, Ariel always believed in me, saw me making it. But for that to happen, I couldn’t take the other path.
You talk a lot about God. Where does your faith come from?
I became a believer when my daughter was born and caught a respiratory illness. A virus meant the channels between her lungs and her trachea were blocked, and she couldn’t breathe. When she was born, I had stopped playing football because the club accused me of something I never did and didn’t think I would have a career. My daughter got ill and it all happened so fast that we rushed her to a clinic, which we didn’t realise was private. She had gone into coronary shock and ended up in hospital two months.
You were at her bedside all day…
We couldn’t be. My wife had to be up at 6 a.m. to take the milk. I had to go at 6:30 in the morning, by bike, an hour away, to work at the site. I would work all day, then go to the hospital at 8 p.m., which was the only time I could visit. They only gave you 15 minutes. Straight from work by bike in dirty cloths, covered in stones, dust, [building] material. My wife would turn up having not eaten because if she did, there would be no money for the bus home. We would wait outside in the cold until 8 p.m. for our 15 minutes. I would go in, then my wife would give her the bottle again.
One day, they wouldn’t let us in because my daughter had gone into cardiac arrest. They managed to resuscitate her, but the following week the same thing happened. And it kept happening. One day she went into a very serious arrest. Even the doctors were crying. They couldn’t do anything. We weren’t allowed in. We had to go home. Me, by bike; my wife on the bus.
I got home, took off my clothes, dropped to the floor crying and said to the Lord if he saves my daughter, all those things I did outside work — crime, hurting people — I would leave completely. Totally. I would focus on my real target, which was football. “Just save my daughter.” And if he didn’t believe me, I said take my life, not my daughter’s. I would swap my life for hers. I was 20.
And that night you just wait, terrified, not knowing?
We went back the next day. My daughter’s bed was empty, clean. Nothing. My wife is sobbing, I’m throwing things around, running about, lost, I wanted to hit the police, crying. I wouldn’t listen to what they were saying, couldn’t hear it. My wife was throwing herself to the floor, covered in dirt. We think [the worst] … But the doctors and the police were trying to make us see that, no, no, our daughter has been taken down to the ward. They had resuscitated her. They said she’s fine, she’s not in arrest, not in intensive care.
Overnight, she was ok. I looked to heaven and said “you did your part. I’m going to do mine.” And since then, no one can say I did anything [bad].
Is your daughter aware of what happened?
We never get to the end of the story because my wife and I start crying. Every night when I put her to bed, every morning when I take her to school, I do it with a kiss, a hug. I like to play with her, brush her hair. What I couldn’t have at home, I want my daughters to have now. That’s where my belief in God comes from: miracles exist, you just have to wait. But there was a problem, too.
We were so happy she was out of danger, but who was going to pay? Who paid for the tests? For the time in hospital? The treatment? I was making €100 a month. I was in tears, phoning [my friend] Ariel. I said “Ariel, they have given my daughter the all-clear but they won’t let me take her home because I owe them a lot of money.” He says “come to the site, we’ll talk.” And while I was on route, he was telling his secretary to pay for my daughter’s treatment.
I got there. “Ariel, help me…” He said “your daughter is in a taxi heading home.”
That promise begins a new phase and a return to football. You said you had stopped playing.
Yes, because Tiro Federal accused me of having stolen balls, bibs, shirts…
Why? To sell them?
Exactly. The president rings me — I’m not even going to name him — to tell me to come to the club. Then he got the caretaker at the club to call: ‘come, we’re going to have a barbecue.’ I went on a little moped. I get to there [Chimy points at the entrance to Tajonar], but I don’t even get to this point [where the buildings are], because the police are already waiting for me. The president makes a statement claiming I had robbed shirts, balls, this and that.
They had set a trap?
But why? What were they trying to achieve?
I don’t know. I still ask myself that. I was found innocent. Two years of my career lost because of a false accusation. They kicked out my brother Gaston too. They kicked my family out of the club. My mum was working there, cleaning. When we got the court papers declaring me innocent I told my agent: “I forgive but I don’t forget. One day there will be justice.” He had hired lawyers to defend me and they bought them off. And when they transferred me and my brother [later], this guy made money for development rights. I was accused but I never s— where I ate. And that club had fed me.
It’s not just two years; it might have ended your whole career. Your life. Did you genuinely not play at all in that time?
Nothing. Nothing at all. My contract continued [so I was stuck] but they didn’t pay me and there was a case pending. So I worked on the site, as a bricklayer. I went out with my wife in the rain to sell clothes. She was pregnant. From 17 or 18 to 20, I went selling clothes, gathering rubbish, scavenging, collecting cardboard, taking any odd job.
Things changed after your daughter’s birth, but the need remains.
When I made that promise, I made that promise. Real professional football starts when I went into San Lorenzo seven or eight years ago [2015, aged 20]. I would go onto the pitch knowing people depended on my goals. I would play every ball to the death.
Has that tension dropped now? You’re financially secure so you can play without that urgent need, can’t you?
No. I don’t change like that, it’s just how I play. [Chimy is shown a photo of a wrecking ball]. Ah, bolas de derrumbe. Yes, that’s me.
That suits Osasuna’s style, but the key to signing you was a DVD of the fans rather than the football. They sold you the idea of standing in the middle of El Sadar listening to them chant your name.
I had just played a good season at Huesca [10 LaLiga goals in 34 games] and had lots of first division clubs interested. But when Braulio, the sporting director, sent me that DVD, I said to my agent “do everything to close it with Osasuna.” He said “there are lots of offers, bigger clubs, more money,” but that [atmosphere] was all I wanted. And it was perfect.
Playing for Osasuna is relentless; they play like the brake cables are cut.
True. When I broke my first knee, it’s because I had no brakes. And the second time I broke it, it’s because I never fixed those brakes. Hahaha! That’s the truth.
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You were out for 435 days, with two consecutive torn cruciate ligaments.
It’s hard, but I knew that my knee would be fixed and there were people wouldn’t overcome the coronavirus, so I related it to that. There were nice moments: kids bringing things to my house, people outside shouting their support, knocking on my door to ask me to sign things. I went to a Camilo concert recently: he’s my daughter’s idol and she loved it, and I saw how lucky we were.
How many kids are there with an idol? How many meet them? And if for some that’s me, why wouldn’t I spend time with them? Those kids were me once.
That injury cost you a move to Barcelona.
Graciela, my agent’s wife, says “Chimy, when it doesn’t happen, maybe it wasn’t for you.” When it’s meant to be, nothing can stop it. And that’s the truth. Dreams are lovely, all the more so when they come true. But what if something happens out on the road? How many people had dreams and lost their lives to COVID-19? Tomorrow, when I open my eyes, I will plan my day.
Is international football a dream?
I’m waiting to swear allegiance to the Spanish flag [to get a Spanish passport] and become European. I would go mad to play for Argentina, but in Spain my daughters found happiness. The two places I know mean everything. Huesca: a mother’s love. Osasuna, Pamplona: a father’s love. That happiness is so hard to find. I came [to Spain] having had a bad time in Argentina, and I’m so grateful for the support I’ve found here.
Physically, how are you now after the injury? You scored 651 days later, and then got another at the weekend.
I feel good: strong, quick. The fitness coach has the stats and I’m OK. There’s always going to be something you still need, though. And the day I believe I am as good as I will ever be, I might as well stop. If you think you’ve made it, you’re screwing it up.
Did you not have any fear? It would be natural to hold back after what you went through.
No [Chimy tuts]. I went on, looked up, and said “God, my fate is in your hands.” The first thing I did was chase, put my foot in — deliberately. I said to my wife when I had the first [ligament] tear “Churi, if I break again, I’ll break, but the intensity never changes.” It will always be like this, whatever the risks.
And how many hours do fans work to pay for a ticket to come and see you play? Why not make that €30, €40, €50 worth it? Do it for them, the people who are taking money off themselves to give it to you. You can lose? Yes. But never because you didn’t try. And it was the fans who drove my rehabilitation. They ensured I didn’t fall again when the bullets were flying.
Metaphorical ones, this time.
Exactly. Let’s not think about those ones from before.