At the age of 31 and with 12 years as a professional behind him, there can be no denying the part Diego Lugano has played in helping drag Uruguayan football back to the summit of the world game. Both on national-team duty and throughout his club career, La Tota Lugano has consistently left his mark, lifted trophies, been a stalwart performer and firm favourite with fans and team-mates alike.
Currently plying his trade in France with Ligue 1 big-spenders Paris Saint-Germain, the captain of the Uruguay side that finished fourth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and won the Copa America 2011 spoke frankly and at length with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: How much does Uruguay’s recent success mean to you?
Diego Lugano: It’s a huge honour to be part of this project, which is living up to Uruguay’s footballing pedigree and history. We’ve put the national team back at the summit of world football, not just through good performances and silverware, but in terms of the respect we command. Now every team that takes on Uruguay treats it like a final, to claim a prestigious scalp. That makes us happy and motivates us to stay on track.
Do you consider yourselves the best team in South America?
Over and above what we think or don’t think, the statistics say just that. We went furthest at the World Cup, we won the Copa America and we’re first in qualifying [for Brazil 2014]. What’s more, it’s not every team that goes 14 international games unbeaten. That’s why I’m saying that we’re currently the team to beat in the region, but we’re not letting it go to our heads. This group of players stays humble and works hard every day to stay where it is, which is a tough task in itself, as well as working towards new goals. This year, for instance, aside from World Cup qualifying we’ve got the Olympic Games. Uruguay have won that competition twice before [at Paris 1924 and Amsterdam 1928], which makes it very special to us.
Success by its nature creates expectation and piles on the pressure, part of which entails qualifying for Brazil 2014…
Qualifying for a World Cup isn’t a new obligation, it’s a historical thing for Uruguay. The difference is that these qualifiers have come around during a very good period for us. If we’ve found it tough before, it’s because South American Zone qualifying is the toughest in the world, and this one is going to be no different despite our good start.
Is it hard thinking about the upcoming two qualifiers, given they’re such a long way off?
Not for us, since they’re the most important matches we’ve got coming up. Venezuela [who Uruguay host on 2 June] are no longer just “a team who might take points off you”, they have now become direct rivals [for a qualifying spot]. The same goes for Peru [who visit Uruguay on 9 June]. Just look back at the last three qualifying campaigns, when we’ve never managed to take all six points in Montevideo against those two teams. If we can do that it’d set us up very nicely for what comes afterwards, though all six qualifiers this year will be decisive because we’re aiming for automatic qualification.
Many observers have already tagged hosts Brazil as firm favourites for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Having played club football there for Sao Paulo, where you enjoyed hero status with the fans, what’s your verdict?
Given the size of Brazil and their eagerness to win the title on home soil, there’s no doubt they’ll have to try and handle extremely high levels of pressure and responsibility, which are tough to cope with. For me personally, I thrive on that kind of pressure because it pushes you towards great achievements. And in Brazil’s case, they’ve proven capable of handling that in the past, though it’s hard to know if the squad that’ll play at this World Cup will be able to cope with it all. What happened in 1950 [when Uruguay beat A Seleção in the final game to win that year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil] has no bearing on that.
Staying on the subject of Brazil 1950, is this Uruguay side capable of repeating that feat?
Hey, hold on, we’ve got to qualify first! (laughs) All I’ll say is if Uruguay qualify and go into the tournament performing the way we are now, we’ll definitely be challengers. I’m not sure if we’d be among the favourites, but there’s no doubt teams would be wary of us.
That FIFA World Cup cemented then Celeste skipper Obdulio Varela's place in the history of Uruguayan and world football. Do you draw inspiration from him?
The history of Uruguayan football goes back for over 100 years and has had great captains during that time: it’s something that's passed down from generation to generation. You inherit those [leadership] qualities from players nearer to you generation-wise, such as Enzo Francescoli for example, who sweated blood for the jersey. Varela is one of our most iconic figures, but I’m proud to be following in the footsteps of everyone who’s ever worn that armband and I embrace the responsibility that it carries. What would be ideal is to be like those captains of old, while adjusting to the modern game.
Tell us about how things are going in France. Can you see yourself becoming as firm a fans’ favourite with PSG as at your previous clubs?
Last year I agreed to the switch because of the challenge involved, which was something I needed. I wanted to start from scratch and get myself fired up again. I needed to feel the adrenaline and the pressure that goes with playing for a different team, a big club that has gone years without winning titles and needs to remedy that urgently. I’m going to give it my all and I can only hope that people will see that. There’s no doubting my commitment to the cause.
From the looks of things you don’t seem to be that bothered about playing in Spain, England or Italy...
Well, I’m not. I’ve already played for Sao Paulo, the biggest club in Brazil; in Turkey, where they live football incredibly passionately, for a club like Fenerbahce, which has more followers than you could even imagine. And now I’m at PSG, the biggest club in France, at the heart of a very ambitious project. I genuinely prefer to enjoy where I am right now rather than daydreaming about something else.
Have you thought about playing in South America again before hanging up your boots?
Yes, sooner or later I’ll go back to Brazil to play for Sao Paulo, which is the club where my career took off. I feel an affinity with the club, and their fans are always asking me to go back. In Turkey too I left a mark, but I think my only chance of going back to South America would be with Sao Paulo.
Moving slightly away from football for a moment. What has been the toughest of these experiences for you: playing at a FIFA World Cup; having five sisters and being the only boy; or being a father?
All three are really difficult! (laughs hard) Being a father is a lifelong role and involves a much greater level of responsibility than simply being able to kick a ball well. It’s tricky because us footballers live in a kind of bubble. Our kids grow up within that unreal world but you still have to try and get the message across to them that most of us had to fight our way up from the bottom. And it’s not easy: you’re far from home – sometimes in another country – fighting a tough, daily battle and one which you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But, even so, you keep fighting for that positive end result.
As a child, was it hard trying to talk about football with so many women around? Of course, your dad being a pro must have helped, right?
Don’t be fooled, we didn’t speak much about football before and we don’t now either – you need to keep your feet on the ground and that’s what family’s for. Besides which, I always end up arguing with my dad because he’s never happy! Not with me, nor my team, nor the national side... It’s really hard going when you argue with someone from another era, who experienced other things. But I do know that he’s proud of me.
Finally, one last question. Let's imagine that FIFA.com has a magic lamp and a genie pops out to grant you three sporting wishes for 2012. What would they be?
What excites me most would be the chance to go to the Olympic Games, because of everything it means to the country. It’s tough because only three overage players can go, but I genuinely have my heart set on it. Next I’d want my countrymen to keep playing as well for their club sides as they have been doing up to now, because that’s a win-win situation for us all and is great for Uruguayan football. And lastly I’d like to establish myself at PSG by winning a trophy.