Tuesday 30 August 2016, 14:06

Committed custodian Espinola still savouring double duty

Carlos Espinola has always understood the sense of responsibility that comes with being a high-ranking public official. Likewise, he has always answered the call of duty from the Paraguayan national futsal team, for whom he is a long-serving linchpin. It is no surprise, then, to hear that he has bent over backwards to keep combining his two passions ahead of the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016, his third Futsal World Cup participation.

When he accepted the post of Administrative and Financial Director at the Ministry of Health's General Directorate for Environmental Health, the goalkeeper knew full well that at some point everything would become a bit of a handful, as it is right now. But he has never looked back, putting his body and soul into his work.

"It's been tricky juggling the roles at times," Espinola told FIFA.com from his office, where he was preparing for his next meeting. "There are days when I'm out for 15 or 16 hours and if I make it home in between, it's only to sort out my bag. But the sacrifices are worth it because this will be my last World Cup," the 35-year-old went on.

The veteran custodian – a mainstay of La Albirroja's set-up since the 2003 Copa America – has never been one to cut corners or seek privileges in order to fulfil his duties. However, he is conscious that such an approach has only been possible thanks to the backing of those around him: "Everyone's been understanding – my boss and the people I work with, and my coach and team-mates too. And it makes me happy to think that I've been able to deliver both in the office and on the pitch," he said proudly.

Besides his workmates and futsal colleagues, he has had another key pillar of support: "My family, of course." On this note, in addition to being promoted, there has been another big change in his life since his last World Cup adventure at Thailand 2012, where he was his country's undisputed No1. "In 2014 I became a father for the third time, to my youngest daughter. They are all very patient with me too!"

The growth of the Espinola clan temporarily thwarted another of the objectives he had four years ago: qualifying as a chartered accountant. "My wife and I were doing the course together, and my daughter's arrival set our plans back a bit. Between the new job, the new baby and apprenticeships . I've got about a year left to do and I intend to pick up where I left off."

His education will not end there, however: "What's more, while I complete that I'll also get my futsal coaching badges."

High hopesEspinola did not deny that his commendable balancing act is a tough one to follow, but voiced the hope that Paraguayan futsal's finest will not have to do so in the future: "Because that would mean futsal was professionalising and you could make a living from it. It would signal the growth of our sport."

One step in the right direction, in the Afemec keeper's view, was the appointment of his former team-mate, Carlos Chilavert, as the national team coach in 2012:  "He knows the score in this country in terms of the idiosyncrasies, the infrastructure and the precariousness, and how to handle these issues. He has adapted the demands of futsal at the highest level to the circumstances on the ground. We've improved and here's hoping we can show it at the World Cup."

Although we'll go there dreaming of being crowned champions, reaching the semi-finals would be an excellent result.

Paraguay will be up against powerhouses Italy, a tricky Guatemala team and debutants Vietnam in the group stage. Espinola is confident his side will progress: "Finishing either first or second isn't far-fetched. Our main strength before was also our weakness: we could give any theoretically superior opposition a run for their money, but we struggled against opponents who were weaker than us on paper. We've addressed that shortcoming and we're more consistent now."

Indeed, after being knocked out in the Round of 16 in Thailand, they are targeting going much further on this occasion: "Although we'll go there dreaming of being crowned champions, reaching the semi-finals would be an excellent result."

Last hurrahAs well as his shot-stopping, Espinola – who supports Club Libertad and professed an admiration for compatriot Justo Villar where football is concerned – is renowned for his peculiar ritual on the pitch. "I lean my head against the posts to 'close off' the goal before the first half, and then when it finishes I 'open it up' again because the opposition keeper will be taking my place. Then I do the same thing before the second half," he explained.

We will see this routine for the final time on the global stage in Colombia, where some of the keeper's equally seasoned team-mates could also take their leave: "In all likelihood that'll be the case. I'm part of what was the 'golden generation' of Paraguayan futsal, who have flown the flag for the country's sporting scene with distinction. The good thing is that there are young players coming up behind us and pushing hard."

All this will make the upcoming occasion extra special and, despite his experience, Espinola admitted to feeling pangs of anxiety about the fast-approaching tournament, perhaps also because he still had some work-related matters to attend to: "It's not a problem so long as I leave everything in order and ensure there are people on hand to deal with things in my absence. That's what I'm seeing to at present."

While acknowledging that he will find it "difficult to disconnect from work altogether", Espinola has learned to only think about that during snatches of "spare time" and is determined to savour his World Cup swansong to the max: "I know it's my last one. That's why I've set my sights on enjoying the moment."