Nelson Haedo Valdez’s life story would not be out of place in a novel. Born into poverty, he overcame considerable obstacles before fulfilling his dream of playing professional football. Now 26 and a star of Borussia Dortmund, the Paraguay forward puts his personal success down to a combination of hard work, self-belief and good fortune.
With a bright future ahead, the humble and contented Haedo remains as ambitious as ever. And with the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ fast approaching, he is eager to make history with La Albirroja and reach the unchartered territory of the quarter-finals. Of this and more, he spoke exclusively with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Nelson, what would you say has been the secret to Paraguay’s success in recent times?
Nelson Haedo Valdez: I think the coach, Gerardo Martino, has had a lot to do with the progress Paraguay have made. The team were always seen as being defensive, one that sat back and would often settle for the draw. But that was before. Now the side that Tata (Martino) has built is much more offensively orientated and presses the opposition further up the pitch.
In the past Paraguay have often seemed to falter when facing top opposition. Has this situation changed?
This is something we still have in our heads a little bit. We Paraguayans have always been self-depreciating and sometimes we’ve shown too much respect to the likes of Argentina and Brazil. Things have improved, however, and we’ve grown in self confidence. We know what we can do and we’ve shown that in the qualifiers. I think this will be fundamental to our performance in South Africa.
What are the main characteristics of this new Albirroja?
It’s a team that has been playing together quite a while. We’ve been growing together ever since the Copa America in 2007, and the nucleus has remained the same through the qualifying campaign. We’re like a family and have matured as a group, and we’re in great shape going into this World Cup.
It’s also a group that has suffered setbacks, such as what happened to Salvador Cabanas...
It was a tragedy, what happened. My father called me a few minutes after he heard what had happened. I still remember his words: 'Make sure you’re sitting down because I have some bad news. Your team-mate Salvador Cabanas has been shot in the head.' I called some of the other players then and began to realise the gravity of the situation. It’s incredible that he’s recovered as he has, and although he won’t be playing in South Africa, what he has done is phenomenal and he’ll be out there to lend us his moral support.
Paraguay seem to have found another striker in Lucas Barrios. What’s your take on him?
It would be an honour for us if Lucas came to the World Cup, but he’d have to fight for his place in the team, that much is certain.
How do you feel about the group Paraguay have been drawn in, with Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand?
It’s a very doable proposition for Paraguay. I think with the team we have and our form in the qualifiers we really do have to qualify.
The first game couldn’t be any bigger, with defending champions Italy the opposition…
It’s an honour to play the first game against the champions. That said they often start slowly in World Cups and this could help us cause an upset.
Do you feel that the time has come to make history at the finals, and what do Paraguayans think of this team?
Expectations are really high going into this World Cup. We began the qualifiers in excellent form and so the public are optimistic we can be the surprise package of the tournament.
The story of your upbringing and early career is quite something…
My childhood was poor but happy, but things began to get very difficult when I left home at the age of 15. The first challenge was to convince my mother to let me to play football. Luckily, my father took my side and I managed to go to Asuncion to pursue my dream [at Club Atletico Tembetary]. Then I was confronted with the shock of having to live beneath the stadium, but nothing like Camp Nou or the Bernabeu, it was a place with four or five staircases and a small bed underneath which was where I slept. There were a few of us who trained on that pitch and lived under the stand because none of us could afford the luxury of having an apartment or living in a hotel. My father always asked if I needed anything and I always said no, but the truth is that it was really difficult. Of the four of us that were there together only I remained at the end of the first month. It was the faith I had in progressing that go me through it and helped me overcome those obstacles.
And then, almost immediately, you went to play in the Bundesliga. That must have been a massive change?
In Paraguay there are a lot of agents that come and make propositions to you. In my case, one showed up with a ticket to Germany, saying everything was arranged and that all I had to do was sign. But before I got on the plane I heard him call Bremen and say: 'I’m sending a player over'. They had no idea what he was talking about! Luckily, the president of Werder Bremen was married to a Paraguayan and it was her that convinced her husband to give me an opportunity. In my first game I scored four goals and that was the key to me staying in Europe.
There’s no doubt that you have adapted to your surroundings in Europe – you even speak Spanish with a hint of a German accent. Has it been difficult?
I arrived here brown and now I’m a lot whiter (laughs)! You could nearly say my German is better than my Spanish. I’ve been in Germany for nine years now, and I’ve met my wife and had children here and it’s like a second home. But my dream is to return to Paraguay. Of course, I’ll have to convince my wife first (laughs). I think at the very least we can give it a try.
Before that, there is the matter of taking on the world in South Africa. What are your hopes for the tournament?
Paraguay have never gone beyond the last 16. I think we’ll get that far but after that every game is like a final. I have every confidence that this generation is the one to go further than we’ve ever been before.