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Ubaldo Matildo Fillol – a legend between the sticks

“The Duck” – a legend between the sticks
Ubaldo Matildo Fillol was one of the world’s best goalkeepers and won the 1978 FIFA World Cup™ with Argentina. For years now, “The Duck” has been coaching goalkeepers for the different Argentinian national teams.
Fillol has a good memory and does not require the prompting of old press cuttings to talk about his past. Now 57, he reminisces about his life fifty years ago as if it were only yesterday – or the day before yesterday at the very least. “I often go to San Miguel del Monte and although it’s changing and expanding all the time, I still see it as it was when I used to play there as a boy.”
Located 100km from the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, San Miguel is the city where the iconic goalkeeper first kicked a ball as a boy. Like many Latin American players, he is from humble origins. His formative years as a footballer were spent learning the hard way, getting covered in mud playing with “20- or 30- year olds” on the run-down dirt pitches of the Coppola district of town, which, he says, did not have any goals and were full of puddles.
His parents separated when he was very young. His father, Luis Damian, who had a grill restaurant called La Tablita on Ruta 3, one of the country’s major roads, helped him on his way. His mother, Cecilia, was a nurse and looked after the children. “We were humble people, but my brother, my two sisters and I wanted for nothing,” says Fillol with characteristic seriousness, a quality he displayed from the day of his debut for Racing Club de Avellaneda at the age of 18.
The practice he had put in was rewarded when, at the age of ten, the father of a friend found a place for him at Club San Miguel, his local side. Then, at the age of 14, he quite unexpectedly moved to the Argentinian capital. “A friend asked me to go with him to a trial in Buenos Aires. I said yes, but I wanted to take part in it as well. People always dream of moving to the city — that’s why we went. I was sure that I was going to succeed.”
Although he had intended to try out as a midfielder, he was signed by Quilmes as a goalkeeper: “We were taken on because we were strong and were used to playing with older people.” It was the beginning of a new life in the seventh division of Argentinian football …
At the age of 14, Fillol left his family, friends and home behind and started out on his big adventure at a boarding house in Quilmes, where he at least had the Diez family to look after him. Without his mother and father to provide for him, he had to make sacrifices: work in the morning and football in the afternoon. With the same hands that he used to dominate the goalmouth, he used to bake bread from six in the morning until two in the afternoon. He would then train until six before returning to his room to have dinner and replenish his energy levels. “I could only go to San Miguel once a month at the most and it was hard on me, but it made me strong.”
Two years later, he swapped his job at the bakery for a position at the metal works owned by the club president. “I knew as much about that as I had done about making bread, but I had to earn a living somehow. My vocation was football, that was what I lived for.”
It was in those years of struggle in obscurity that he acquired the nickname that lives on to this day and that has even been registered by Fillol as a trademark. How did it come about? “By pure chance [he laughs]. One day when I was playing in the eighth division, they called me up to play in the fourth division because they had lost their keeper, Pato [meaning "Duck"] Iglesias. Since I was new and nobody knew me, they called me “Duck” for the whole match, just as usual, and the name began to stick.”
Even as a boy, Fillol showed a maturity beyond his years and distinguished himself as a footballer through his athleticism and quick reactions. In 1969, after four years at the club, he made his first division debut for Quilmes aged just 18. The result, a 6-3 defeat to Huracan, caused him such anguish that he cried like a baby from the moment he left the pitch until the next morning when he got up for training.
“I was devastated. A caretaker manager had given me my debut and when 1 arrived at training he had already been replaced. After working really hard in training, I had my shower and said to him that I realised that I had not played well but wanted another chance,” he recalls. And how did coach Carmelo Simeone respond? “After what you did the other day, I’d have to be mad to pick you. But don’t worry, you will have chances because I trust in your ability.” It was a huge blow: “That was the worst match of my life. The only reason I didn’t retire from the game there and then was because I had such great faith in myself,” he confesses with a smile.
Fillol’s recall to the first team came the following year, in 1970, and although the club ended up relegated, this time he performed brilliantly. There is also a very amusing anecdote from this period. At the time, Fillol was combining his playing career with military service at the regional base in Quilmes. “I was a disaster, always getting into fights and spending all my time in cells. On the day of the match against Lanus, the president of Quilmes came to ask the sergeant on duty to release me because he was short of a goalkeeper. ‘Take him away, let him play and bring him back,’ was the sergeant’s reply.” That day, “The Duck” made a name for himself, playing one of the best matches of his life. The most comical incident took place when he was interviewed in the dressing room after the match. “I said on the radio that I was dedicating my performance to Sgt Garcia because it was thanks to him that I had been able to play. When I got back to the base, he wanted to kill me because I had given him away and he had me up working all hours; I was absolutely shattered.”
Quilmes have a great footballing tradition, but are not one of Argentina’s big clubs and after establishing himself there, Fillol was signed by top side Racing de Avellaneda. He only found out about his transfer, in 1972 when he was still only 22, by reading about it in the newspapers. This brought him his first big payday as a footballer, which he used to buy a house.
Fillol was agile, had great reflexes, a strong character and was a born winner. He was also capable of self-criticism when watching his performances on television, which helped him improve. After spending a year and a half at Racing and earning a runners-up spot in the league in the process, he moved to River Plate. Initially however, he was not sure whether he wanted to change clubs and remained undecided until Angel Labruna, another legendary Argentinian player and Fillol’s mentor, grabbed hold of him and said, “Don’t make me lose my temper, take this chance or else some serious punches will be thrown . . .” This made his mind up and he remained at River Plate for over a decade, becoming Argentina’s undisputed number one in the process.
Reliable, respected and serious, Fillol was famous for his penalty saves and the 26 spot kicks he stopped during his career in Argentina is still a record. He also played in three World Cups, although being left out of the squad for the 1986 FIFA World Cup™ in Mexico still rankles.
The high point of his career was six glorious months in 1978 when he saved a number of penalties, including one in the World Cup final against the Netherlands. The 1982 World Cup was a frustrating experience, however, of which he says that Argentina “died on [their] feet against major rivals like Brazil and Italy.” Fillol also played a key role in Argentina’s qualifying campaign for the 1986 World Cup, making what he describes as one of the saves of his life from Uribe of Peru in 1985. “If he had scored, we would have gone 2-0 down and wouldn’t have qualified.” After that, however, he received no further call-ups to the Argentina squad and his 12-year international career was brought to a close … only to be resumed in 1999 in another capacity.
Fillol has a wealth of footballing experience, both as goalkeeper of the Argentinian national team and as the idol of the Maracana stadium in Brazil during his rime at Flamengo. He also had a spell at Atletico Madrid, where he failed to perform to his usual standard.
It has now been 17 years since he hung up his boots and his three children, Sebastian, Nadia and Tamara, have made him a grandfather. In 1999, however, he donned the white and sky blue of Argentina once again, but only the training kit, as he had joined the national set-up as a coach. “I started out helping Hugo Tocalli with the youth team,” he says. These days he is the goalkeeping coach, although he does not like this description: “I am a coach with the specific task of supervising goalkeepers. It’s a very satisfying job and a token of recognition from the Argentinian FA.”
His only break from the national team during this time came when he assumed the role of head coach for the first time at Racing, where he is considered a legend. He did not take the job for the money, but to challenge his mental faculties and feel alive. Even when the national team are not on duty, he goes to the Ezeiza training complex to talk to youngsters and explain concepts to them. “I have a real vocation to teach, I’m really enthusiastic and it motivates me. It’s an honour and I feel privileged,” he says.
“The Duck”, who was at both the 2006 FIFA World Cup™’ and Copa America 2007, feels the same adrenalin now when he travels with the national team as when he was a boy in San Miguel and had never even dreamed of being a footballer. What a career he has had! What a fantastic goalkeeper!