When a team goes through a transition phase, it is generally the more experienced figures that provide the leadership - the logic being that they are generally better equipped to deal with the pressures this can entail.
As a consequence, the younger players are normally afforded the freedom to mature unfettered until their time comes to assume more responsibility. However, there are always exceptions to the rule and bucking the trend in Peru is 24-year-old Juan Vargas, a man unfazed by being a pillar of the national team as it continues its long rebuilding process.
Speaking exclusively to
FIFA.com from Italy, where he plies his trade with
Catania, the left-winger humbly proclaims: "Am I a
leader?' I don't know, I don't think so. All I'm
interested in is going to the World Cup in South Africa."
On the verge of quitting
Vargas was born in the Peruvian capital Lima on 5 October 1983 and by the age of 12 was already playing youth football with Universitario de Deportes. He then moved to Cerro Pasco side Union Minas, where he was on the verge of abandoning his chosen profession because of money worries.
However, Cesar Gonzalez, then coach Peru's U-20 side, persuaded him to reconsider with the proviso that he would find him a club to play for, paving the way for Vargas to return to Universitario in 2002. He made his first-team debut in November that year when, in the midst of a strike by the professionals, he was part of a team of youth players picked to face Cienciano.
Although Universitario lost 3-2 that day, Vargas made his mark with a standout display he capped with a goal. " ," he recalls.
The 2003 and 2004 seasons saw him establish himself as a first division player through sheer force of personality, popular acclaim and some well-taken goals. Jose Chemo del Solar, the present Peru coach, said at the time: "I've known him since he was a boy. He's a very useful player and good striker of a ball, and I'm certain he'll go far."
Argentina, the national side and Italy
Del Solar was right: in 2005, Vargas moved to Argentinian side Colon de Santa Fe, where he proved a consistent performer over two seasons. "My spell in Argentinian football was positive - it's very competitive, and I learnt a lot about the tactical side of the game." In fact, his performances earned him a call up from Paulo Cesar Autuori to the national team, and in October of 2004 he made his full senior debut for Peru in a 2006 FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Paraguay.
Having already secured a first team place with both the national team and Colon, Vargas' big break came midway through 2006, when he was signed by Catania, with whom he has just completed his second season as a first-team regular.
"Maybe some people have been surprised that I've done so well, but I've always believed in myself. I've been disciplined, taken things one step at a time and have my feet on the ground. I'm well aware I've got a lot to learn', he adds with humility. Since Walter Zenga's appointment as coach, Vargas has been playing as a left-sided midfielder. "I've no problems playing there," he says. "In fact, it's going to help me develop as a footballer."
Indeed, such has been the Peruvian's progress that he has reportedly caught the eye of clubs such as Juventus, Roma, Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. " ," says El Loco (the crazy one). And where did the nickname come from? "I'm prone to mood swings. I could spend an entire training session laughing and joking, but afterwards in the dressing room I might not feel like talking to anybody," he says with a smile.
Mission: South Africa
Peru have only garnered two points from their opening four games in the qualifiers for the South Africa 2010, but Vargas has not given up hope. "It's still early days and the road ahead is long. We have to be positive and be more focused on the field, because here the team that loses is the one that makes the most mistakes."
There is logic to this calm approach. "Apart from Argentina and Brazil, who are head and shoulders above the rest - you lift up a stone in those countries and you find a footballer - and Paraguay, who have been going well for a while now, there is little separating the rest."
Vargas chooses not to ponder the reasons why Peru has not qualified for the FIFA World Cup since 1982, because there are "just too many of them". However, he feels that in order to progress, they must "make the most of the players competing abroad. This experience will bring rewards in the long run."
Going back to the qualifiers, Vargas admits that the bans imposed by the Peruvian Football Association on Claudio Pizarro, Jefferson Farfan, Santiago Acasiete and Andres Mendoza for events off the pitch have been felt on it. "They are all experienced players and their absence will be noticed more as the games go on."
However, El Loco finishes on an optimistic note: "Three of the next four games are in Peru, where we have to really impose ourselves. If we take nine or ten points from those, we'll be back on track. And I'm not worried about finishing in the top four or whether we have to go through the play-offs. Like I've said, all I want is to play at the next World Cup."