Soccer has provided Nelson Valdez with wealth, success, an impressively swanky home in an upscale suburb of the German city of Dortmund and a chance to shine on soccer’s biggest stage of all.
But before the big pay checks kicked in and World Cup dreams came true, the beautiful game also gave Valdez a makeshift place to live and an escape from homelessness.
Leading up to perhaps the biggest game of his career – Paraguay’s round of 16 clash with Japan in Pretoria on Tuesday – Valdez recalled the two teenage years he spent when home was a collection of cardboard boxes beneath the stands at his hometown club.
“I would put on all my clothes to keep warm at night and curl up the best I could,” said Valdez, who now plays club soccer with Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga and earns a seven-figure salary.
Valdez’s impoverished family lived in a tiny village called San Joaquin and could not afford to support him between the ages of 15 and 17 as he chased a professional soccer career. He moved hours away to join Atletico Tembetary, yet the meager trainees’ wages of $20 a week made rented accommodation out of the question.
So, unbeknownst to everyone at the club except for a kind-hearted security man, Valdez trained on the club’s fields during the day and slept in the bowels of its stadium by night.
“Everything I have in life and I owe to football,” he said. “That I can live somewhere nice and provide for my family, that is football. That I don’t have to sleep outside or under some concrete. That I don’t have to be cold or hungry or worried about the most basic things.
“I don’t regret the journey I have taken. It is different, far different to most people and most players. But it makes me appreciate things better and makes me proud and committed.”
Valdez was not the most talented youngster at Tembetary, but his work ethic and desperation to attain a better way of life drove him. At 17, he abandoned the cardboard boxes once and for all thanks to a senior contract. A year later, financial problems were a thing of the past when German club Werder Bremen spotted his ability and transformed his life.
“It was a bit of a shock when I first went to Germany,” Valdez said. “It was winter time and I have never felt it so cold. But I knew I had been given a special opportunity that I was fortunate to have and I knew I had to take it.
“There were times when I was homesick for my country but every time I look back at where I came from and how I lived it makes me appreciate this game and this life.”
The World Cup’s round of 16 is a long way removed from those humble beginnings, but things could soon get even better for Valdez. Paraguay is a strong favorite to beat Japan and move on to a quarterfinal matchup against Spain or Portugal. Either of those heavyweights would pose a strong challenge, yet with the way European teams have struggled in this tournament, nothing can be taken for granted.
“I don’t look too far ahead,” Valdez said. “Sometimes, yes, it is good to look for something better if you are in a bad situation in life. But that doesn’t work for football. You have to be part of every game, to live it for what it is, not as a road to something else.”