In March 2019, I visited Córdoba, Argentina. One of the cities most important football teams, Belgrano, was fighting to remain in the first division and so I made it a top priority of my trip to attend Belgrano’s match on Friday the 8th against fellow relegation fighters Patronato.
The morning of the match, I had the chance to watch the two reserve squads face each other at Belgrano’s training facility. There were a handful of up-and-coming young players that I was excited to watch play. But there was one player who I had never seen before who stole the show. Belgrano won the match 4-0, with two of those goals being scored by a 21-year-old center forward named Gonzalo Lencina. I knew after watching him that morning that he was a player with immense potential that I should keep my eye on.
Gonzalo was raised in Alta Gracia, a town established by Jesuits in the 16th century, located 40 minutes southwest of Córdoba. Alta Gracia’s claim to fame is that Che Guevarra spent 12 years of his youth living there and his family home has now become a local tourist destination.
Gonzalo’s father Nelson, was a football fanatic and Gonza would watch football with him and then go out to the park in his neighborhood and try and replicate everything he saw on TV. He loved football since before he can remember.
When he was five, he joined a local club called Malvinas. Then when he was eight, he moved to another club, Deportivo Norte, and began to compete against other big clubs as part of the Liga Cordobesa. He stayed with that same team until he was 15, when he made the difficult decision to quit playing football. “I had to stop playing, both for family reasons and so I could focus on school, and truthfully, I was getting exhausted with football, so I had to take a break.”
Gonza turned his focus to his studies. He finished High School and started attending a university to study advertising. But just like any true love, he was only able to step away from football for a time, but he found it impossible to quit it forever.
“When I was 18, I decided to return and play. Thanks to my brother and a conversation with the whole family, I decided it was time to play football again. I started back with the same club, Deportivo Norte.” Gonza spent one season with his local club before bigger teams started to notice his special talent.
“One of the directors of the youth team at Belgrano saw me play. I had a good season with Deportivo. Our season ended and Belgrano continued to train. So, he brought me up to practice with the club, this was in October . I participated in a couple of training sessions, they said they liked me and asked me to join them for the next preseason.” Gonza was already 19 years old, too old to participate in the youth divisions, so he went straight into the reserve squad.
Gonza’s grandfather was a fanatic of Independiente, one of the most important clubs in Argentina, and he passed that love onto his son. But growing up, Gonza and his father would travel up to Córdoba on a regular basis to attend matches at the Gigante de Alberdi, Belgrano’s home stadium. Gonza only had one true love, and for him, it was the dream of a lifetime to wear the sky-blue shirt of the El Pirata.
On May 20, 2018, a year and a half after Gonza started playing with the reserve squad, he traveled with Belgrano’s first team to Buenos Aires to play in the Copa Argentina against Platense. It was going to possibly be his debut for Belgrano. “When I got off the bus Juanca Olava (Belgrano’s historic goalkeeper who had become the sporting director of the club) told me that he had two things to share with me. First, I was not going to be included in the matchday squad. Second was that I was going to sign my first professional contract with the club. I went to sit down in the locker room and think about what had just happened. I couldn’t stop myself from crying.”
His parents had traveled with him to Buenos Aires with the hope of seeing their son play. He went up and found them sitting in the stands and told them he would not be playing, but that he was going to become a profession footballer. “It was extremely emotional for them. They had been supporting me since I was a kid and they dreamed that one day, maybe one of their sons would make it to the first team. I think they were even happier than I was.”
Even after signing his first contract, Gonza continued to play for the reserve squad. Meanwhile, the first team was teetering on the brink of relegation. The squad had lost their best player, Matias Suarez, to River Plate during the January transfer window and had struggled to score any goals at all. The noise from the fans was getting louder and louder. They were sick of the so-called goal scorers who were playing each week but not scoring goals – the fans were ready for new blood.
“As a player, I knew the fans were calling for me or one of the other strikers from the reserves to play. They supported us and gave us the strength we needed for when we finally would make our debut.”
Finally, in the third to final match of the season, Belgrano traveled to Avallaneda to play Racing Club who was in first place closing in on another championship.
El Pirata fell behind 1-0 in the first minute. As time went on, Belgrano had to find that goal to salvage a point or they would be one step closer to relegation. Finally, in the 76th minute, Belgrano’s manager called over to Gonza and told him he’d be going in. “To be honest, I was only concentrating on the match, I wanted to go in even earlier, but when he called me over, I ran as fast as I could to go on the pitch, and once I got out there, it was crazy. To be in the Cilindro playing against the first-place team with a packed stadium, it was something I’ll never forget. It gave me goosebumps.”
Belgrano failed to win that match and two matches later, their fate would be sealed – they would be returning to Argentina’s second division. “I have had some amazing experiences being a fan of Belgrano, but now as a part of the team and living through such a horrible moment in the club’s history, it caused me a lot of pain to not find joy in the club that I support and love. Once that match ended, I looked at the fans, and it brought me to tears as well. It was devastating.”
With the hope of returning to the first division as quickly as possible, Belgrano first signing that off season was a proven goal scorer, Pablo Vegetti. El Toro would start ever single match as the team’s lone striker up top. Gonza found his way off the bench into a handful of matches but was never a starter. In the eighth match of the season, Gonza scored his first goal for his beloved club.
“We were losing 4-1 to Atlanta at halftime and the manager said he wasn’t going to make any changes. So, imagine my frustration. I finally got the chance to go in, I was lucky to score a goal, and personally I was happy, but I was also sad to see us lose 4-2 and see the poor state the team was in.”
After that defeat, Belgrano was closer to a second consecutive relegation than they were to returning to the top flight. Their manager was fired and when a new manager, Ricardo Caruso Lombardi, was brought in, Gonza did not appear to be part of his plans moving forward.
In March 2020, the global Covid-19 pandemic hit and all football was suspended. Once the team finally resumed training in September, Gonza knew his chances of playing for Belgrano were slim. If Gonza wanted to get time on the pitch, he was going to need to look for other options.
His agent was looking for interested teams, both inside and outside of Argentina. The best option that came up was to remain in the Primera Nacional but move up north and join Gimnasia de Jujuy.
Now 23-years-old, it was the first time Gonza would live on his own away from his parents and friends in Alta Gracia and Córdoba. “I do miss my family a lot, but I try not to think a lot about it so that I don’t miss them too much. And I miss Córdoba. But Jujuy isn’t too bad either. Some of the kindest people I’ve met.”
Not only was he now away from his family, but as a club Gimnasia de Jujuy pales in comparison to the size of El Pirata. “Belgrano is a first division team. They have one of the nicest training facilities in the country. The fanbase is enormous and they put a lot of pressure on the team to win. Here in Jujuy, everything is more laid back. I can go out and walk down the street and no one says a word to me. It’s as if I wasn’t even a footballer, the complete opposite of playing for Belgrano. But to be honest, I do miss the pressure of playing for Belgrano.”
Gonzalo Lencina has come off the bench in each of Gimnasia’s first three matches, earning a little bit more playing time each week. His goal is to break into the starting 11 as quickly as possible.
For most of us, this year has been crazy, and for Gonza, he is certainly is not where he imagined he would be when the year started. But for a kid who quit football for three years, he is nothing short of enthusiastic to have this opportunity to continue to play. And with everything that has happened in 2020, his focus is only on the positive and not the negative – taking time to see to all the things in his life he has to be grateful for.
Rapid Fire Questions:
What do you like to do in your free time?
Spend time with my friends and family.
Best show or movie you recently saw?
Your favorite brand of yerba?
Favorite band or singer?
I like cumbia and cuarteto. I’d have to pick Q’Lokura or Damián Córdoba. But I listen to a bit of everything.
A place in the world you want to visit?
Your favorite place you’ve visited so far.
Mexico, the Caribbean, Miami, and Disneyworld.
Who is the best striker in the world?
Luis Suarez. But here in Argentina, Rafael Santos Borré.
Who are your heroes?
My mom and dad.
Do you have a good luck charm?
There are a couple of things I do before the game, but I don’t want to say it and spoil the luck.
A dream you’d like to achieve, both in football and in life?
In football, I want to play as long as I can, and I’d love to play in another country. And in life, I just want to live comfortably with my family.