“Santi, you are going in”, shouted all of a sudden Juan Carlos Alvarez, the head coach of Itagui Leones. It was directed to Santiago Arroyave who sat on the bench with the rest of the subs. It was the 85th minute and Leones was 0:1 down against Deportivo Pereira during the Copa Colombia match. “Is it true? Am I really going in to play?”, wondered Arroyave to himself when he smiled his embarrassed smile. The excitement began to sink in his body. He tried to hide it but couldn’t. He stood on the line with the number 17 on his back, about to enter the game. He took a deep breath when he heard his friends on the bench encourage him to stay calm and play with confidence. The sign was raised and Arroyave entered with a lot of confidence, willing but without one thing: His left arm.
On the day after, Arroyave sat at home and his cell phone didn't stop ringing. Phone calls and messages from all over South America and even from Spain, journalists wanted to hear his story. “I didn’t feel like a famous person but I did feel like a real football player”, says Arroyave, who right now has over 101K followers on his Instagram account. But Arroyave, a modest and simple person, replied to anyone who asked him questions.
He was born on July 8th, 1999 with a rare congenital deformity called Phocomelia in which the hands or feet are attached close to the trunk, the limbs being grossly underdeveloped or absent. It appeared mostly in babies who their mothers used the drug Thalidomide during early pregnancy. In Arroyave’s case, his mother had an unexpected pregnancy because she didn’t want more children. During the treatment she received this specific drug eased the pain but unfortunately caused this horrible result: Santiago was born without a left arm and with a very "fragile" right arm, which is grossly underdeveloped and with two missing fingers. He also cannot move it very well.
Despite the unexpected and complicated pregnancy, his family never turned their back on him. They made him feel loved and with so many friends, mostly of his older brothers. “My childhood was great”, tells Santi. “I’ve never been laughed at, surely not much more than any other ordinary child. There were always difficulties but no one has ever discriminated me because of my situation. Sometimes there were sad moments but we have to learn to accept them as well”, he says.
When he was 6 years old he started to play football. Despite his disability, he never stopped dreaming that one day he will fulfil his dream to play professional football. Four years ago he moved to the youth department of Itagui Leones and since then his life became happier. Every day he leaves his house in the Serramonte neighbourhood in his city Bello, and very early takes the train heading to Itagui. The riding takes about an hour until he arrives to Ditaires stadium to train with the youth squad and sometimes with the senior squad, who plays in the Colombian Primera. His friends always help him with several daily basic activities such as tie his shoes or arrange his socks. Socially he fits in very well, laughs and jokes around with his teammates. But he also trains hard, sweating, running and improving his technique. He even battles with his friends during practice and tackles them if he needs to. No one treats Santiago in a different way. “No one feels sorry for him here, everyone treats him in the practice like a regular football player. He knows how to give and receive, but he never lets anyone to tackle him”, explain coach Alvarez. “I feel equal among my teammates and I have the most important thing in order to succeed: my desire!”, says Arroyave.
His first touch with the ball as soon as he entered the game was in a corner kick he executed with his left leg. He is left-footed just like James Rodriguez, his idol. “I’m a huge fan of him since we’re both number '10', playmakers. We’re both left-footed and both of us have a good technique of passing the ball”, he says with full confidence. His coach backs up his words. He invited Arroyave to train with the senior squad after watching his great performances with the youth team. “He never lets his disability to be a disadvantage for him. He knows how to pass, how to find an open player and how to score. After the game against Pereira, he returned to the youth squad and scored several beautiful goals. He learnt to overcome his physical disability with his mentality”, says Alvarez.
Santiago received his invitation to the game 24 hours before the kickoff, on May 2nd, 2018. He saw that his name is on the list of the game squad. Due to the match of Leones against Atletico Nacional in the league three days later, Alvarez decided to mix reserve players and several U-20 players to play the Copa, with Santi among them. He still couldn’t believe it. His great opportunity finally arrived. When the coach asked him to get in, he came to do what the coach needs him to do, to play as a playmaker. You could feel his excitement, and also his fear, it was hard not to, but it was also very natural. “We wanted that he would feel equal among the rest of the players, we encouraged him and gave him all the love and support. The players know that he is a good player, both teams warmly welcomed him. He has very specific dreams and the next one is to play in the league and this is absolutely up to him”, says Alvarez.
At the end of the game, while his teammates were upset because of the result, Arroyave walked towards the middle of the pitch. He didn’t smile but still was very emotional from all the things that happened to him in the last 24 hours. Pereira's players came to shake his hand and congratulate him. They exchanged shirts with him and made him really feels like James. "They congratulated me and told me that it was their pleasure to share the same pitch with me. They told me to keep chasing after my dreams and never to surrender ", says Santi. The second part of the Colombian league started last week and now he wants to play an official game. But he doesn't stop there and aspires to perhaps play abroad and maybe even in Europe. These are his biggest dreams. "I talked with coach Alvarez and he told me that one day I will play in the league. I work very hard in order to make this happen and I hope it'll be soon."
Santiago is already used to live without his left arm, but luckily he still has his right one, even though it hasn't developed as it was supposed to. On this arm he tattooed several tattoos which symbolize important things in his life: A clock which points at 8:30 a.m., the hour which he was born on July 1999; The word 'Tribal' which symbolizes his family who loves him so much; a football which is his great passion but the most important is one sentence which summarizes Arroyave's story: 'Solo el que confía en sí mismo será capaz de lograr sus más grandes sueños' which means 'Only the one who believes in himself will be able to achieve his biggest dreams'.
It wasn't easy to think that 18 years after such a complicated and difficult birth he will run on the pitch of Itagui and will prove that dreams can come true. "I never thought it would happen so fast. I did believe and I always fought, practiced as hard as I can with a lot of sacrifices. Dreams can come true even if sometimes there are 'bumps' in the road. God has a plan for every person in this world. The limitations are mental and with a lot of willing and attitude, everything is possible", summarized Arroyave.