Ralph Hannah –
On paper, the final game of the 2012 Apertura between Libertad and Rubio Ñu seems as unremarkable as you can get, a 1-0 home victory via an own goal in front of 250 supporters. But the final five minutes were lit up by the first team debut of a slight schoolboy named Jesus Medina who looked like the surazo (the chilly winter wind that comes up from the south at that time of year) would bend him in two, let alone the Rubio Ñu defenders who were twice his age and size.
But this youngster with a shaved head, a rite of passage for all Paraguayan youngsters who make it to the first team, ran at the opposition without fear showing pace and supreme technical ability. He almost scored crashing a shot off the bar from a distance.
It seemed almost impossible that a few months ago Jesus Medina had been playing for Libertad U-15s under the tuition of Copa America winner Roberto Paredes. In fact, it was Paredes who handed him his senior debut that July afternoon, in charge of the first team for the final game following the abrupt departure of 1986 World Cup Winner Jorge Burruchaga just days before.
Libertad did not want to showcase Jesus Medina to early
Despite his five minutes of fame, he wouldn’t become a first-team regular at the Gumarelo until after his 18th birthday. Libertad have learned the hard way that showcasing young talent too quickly can see them snapped up by European clubs for relative peanuts, so they kept this jewel relatively hidden in youth team games at the abandoned Colegialito stadium. Previously home to Club Tembetary in the 1990s it is where Nelson Haedo famously slept under the stand, surviving on mil’I guaranies (1,000 guaranies is worth 20 cents) and handouts from a kind old neighbour.
The Nelson Haedo experience doesn’t apply to Medina, he was a product of the very efficient Libertad youth system which was set up by tobacco magnate and now Paraguayan President, Horacio Cartes. Paraguayan kids from across the country were offered housing, a proper diet and even help with their schooling as they progressed through the ranks. It is the same conveyer belt that has produced national team players such as Jorge Moreira, Víctor Ayala and Gustavo Gómez (currently at AC Milan).
While Libertad tried to hide Medina from overseas admirers as much as they could the world caught glimpses of this precocious talent in 2013 at the U-17s South American Championships. Medina shone with then Barcelona player Antonio Sanabria, scoring four goals in eight games from midfield.
Jesus Medina – Following Miguel Almirón’s trail
By the 2016 Apertura with Medina contracted professionally, he became a regular under Eduardo Rivera playing 19 of Libertad’s 22 league games, scoring four times as they won the league title. A year later he was champion again under Fernando Jubero, the Spaniard renowned for bringing through young talent. Medina played predominantly on the left wing, but his technical ability means he could just as quickly play down the middle in a classic “10” role.
Now at New York City, he will team up with another Spaniard, the club’s all-time top scorer David Villa who is already aware of the city’s Paraguayan connection. Last year a photo of El Guaje with a traditional Tereré (the national drink) kit went viral, Rodrigo Marion, the youth coordinator, gave it to him. A generous gesture considering it was Villa who broke seven million Paraguayan hearts in the 2010 World Cup Quarter Finals. Other than Marion, the 20-year-old midfielder will find home comforts through a Paraguayan restaurant in Sunnyside and the network of compatriots that have settled across the state, overflowing into New Jersey and Connecticut. Medina will also look for inspiration down south to Atlanta where Miguel Almirón has blazed a trail for Paraguayan attacking midfielders in the MLS (Josué Colmán and Christian Paredes have joined Orlando City and Portland Timbers respectively), his consistent match-winning performances for The Five Stripes should instill confidence that Medina can have a similar effect in Patrick Vieira’s side.
If his debut on Sunday is anything like those five minutes in 2012, we are in for a treat.
Ralph Hannah is Londoner, who has lived in Luque and is now located in Miami, with a keen interest in Paraguayan football history and statistics. A frequent traveler throughout Latin America he attends games throughout the region and has written for a variety of publications and set up the first English-language blog on Paraguayan Football. When not in the Defensores del Chaco he’s looking after his 2 daughters. Follow Ralph on Twitter @paraguayralph.