Should any football historian compile a list of the greatest left-footers ever to play the game, Uruguayan Ruben Walter Paz would have a very strong case for inclusion. In a career spanning some 29 years, Paz won titles in his homeland, Brazil and Argentina, played in the Italian and French leagues and was an iconic figure for his country, whom he represented at two FIFA World Cups™.
"I don't know if it's that big a deal, but I'm happy enough with the warmth with which I'm received in Uruguay and the other countries I played in. And all those countries have won World Cups, haven't they? That tells you something," Paz told FIFA.com from his base in Montevideo, where the 49-year-old is an assistant coach at Penarol.
"At the end of the day, I'm just pleased that I achieved everything I set out to do in this profession. I needed to make a lot of sacrifices but I was successful. And if I had to make the choice again whether or not to pursue a footballing career, I'd say yes without hesitation."
In another example of life's cyclical tendencies, Paz's current club Penarol were his boyhood idols, and the team where the gifted playmaker would take his first steps in the professional game. "As a child I wanted to be like Alberto Spencer, who was the biggest Mirasol (one of Penarol's nicknames) fans' hero of all time," explained Paz, who was born in the Uruguayan city of Artigas on 8 August 1959.
"And when at the age of 17 I was lucky enough to break into the first team and win the title, it was a dream come true. It was at Penarol that I realised that this was a job not just a game, and as such I had to take it seriously. They were five marvellous years where I did what I enjoyed most: being a footballer."
His wand-like left foot also caused him to gain popularity in both Brazil and Argentina. "The Brazilian league values quality above anything else, and I was fortunate enough to join a very good Internacional side," he recalled of his move to the Porto Alegre outfit. "But it was a different situation at Racing Club. That's because the club hadn't won anything for ages and I played a part in collecting two international trophies. Even so, I still find it hard to explain why their fans still love me so much."
One of the reasons why Paz is so fondly remembered was his success rate from set-pieces, particularly around the edge of the box. Is this dead-ball mastery a gift or the result of hard work? "I was coached by the Brazilian Dino Sani at both Penarol and Internacional. He used to hit the ball brilliantly and he helped me to hone my talent. It's a gift but you also have to have the patience to practice and perfect the technique."
And though his spells in France and Italy produced fewer plaudits, it was during his time on the Old Continent that he was included in the Uruguay squads that reached Mexico 1986 and Italy 1990. On both occasions, however, the Celeste fell at the Round of 16.
"Our preparation wasn't the best before Mexico but even so Argentina only beat us narrowly, and they went on to be crowned champions. In Italy, on the other hand, we were lacking a bit of luck. If we hadn't come up against the host nation we could have gone further."
On the back of his European sojourn, the well-travelled Charrúa played out the rest of his career at a host of lesser-known clubs, before finally retiring at the grand old age of 46. So, why did choose to play on for so long?
". From packed stadiums, to dressing rooms crowded with journalists and huge adrenaline rushes, I moved on to something similar but on a lesser scale. That helped me to step away for good."
Throughout his interview, Paz was so clearly at ease discussing tactics, planning and group management. "I used to always say I wasn't going to move into coaching. But later on I realised that I'd find it really difficult to cut my ties with football," he said. "And when Marcelo Saralegui invited me to be his assistant at Penarol, I said yes and here I am."
Paz also admits that life off the field is more difficult than on it, "because you can cover lots of things in training over the course of the week, but on the day of the match it's all down to the players". That said, despite having been a midfield orchestrator throughout his playing career, he is adapting well to his less high-profile role: "I'm learning a lot and it's possible that at some point the time will come for me to take sole charge. Only time will tell."
On a related note, would he ever like to coach Uruguay? "Of course," he declared. "But I'm not thinking about that at the moment because I don't feel I'm ready. But I am convinced that with a better infrastructure and a long-term project, Uruguay could make the most of the excellent young players we're still producing and become a force again. That, for me, would be the greatest challenge."
Facts and figures
Clubs: Club Atlético Peñarol (1977-81), Internacional de Porto Alegre (1982-86), Racing Matra de París (1986), Racing de Avellaneda (1987-88), Genoa (1989-90); Racing Club de Avellaneda (1991), Rampla Juniors (1992-93), Club Frontera Rivera (1994-94, 1997-00), Godoy Cruz (1995), Wanderers (1996), Nacional San José de Mayo (2002), Club Tito Borjas (2003-05), Club Pirata Juniors (2006).
National Team: 66 caps (12 goals)
Honours: 3 Uruguayan titles (Penarol 1978, 1979, 1980); 3 Brazilian State Championships (Inter de Porto Alegre 1982, 1983, 1984); 2 international titles with Racing de Argentina (Supercopa Sudamericana 1988 and Supercopa Interamericana 1988); 1 title with Uruguay (Copa de Oro - Mundialito 1980).