Voted the best goalkeeper at the recent Copa America, Paraguay’s Justo Villar was looking forward to the start of their bid to reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ when injury intervened.
Forced out of Francisco Arce’s squad for the opening two games against Peru and Uruguay, the 34-year-old looked on helplessly as Los Guaraníes kicked off with an unsatisfactory return of one point from of a possible six, a tally that would have been even more meagre but for a late equaliser against Los Charrúas. One month on from that double disappointment, and the skipper is fit again and ready to rejoin the battle, which resumes in November with games against Ecuador and Chile.
“I wouldn’t say I’m anxious about it, but I definitely want to find out how the change in style is going to work out for us,” the experienced Albirroja keeper, who plays his club football for Argentina’s Estudiantes, told FIFA.com.
That change in style has come about following the departure of Gerardo Martino, the coach who took them all the way to the quarter-finals at South Africa 2010 and the final of this year’s Copa America. And with 32 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches already behind him, Villar is well placed to compare and contrast Martino’s approach with that of his succcessor.
“With El Tata [Martino] we were always pressurising the opposition and getting stuck in, and while Arce respects that approach, he’s also looking to bring in more ball players and youngsters. That’s why getting that draw against Uruguay was so important, especially for our morale. If we’d lost another game, people would really have started to question everything.”
The man who stepped into Jose Luis Chilavert’s not inconsiderable shoes confessed that he found Paraguay’s opening defeat in Lima and the stalemate at home to the Uruguayans hard to watch, though he was not surprised to see the Peruvians make life difficult for his colleagues in the national team.
“We’ve always had problems against them,” he explained. “They beat us in the qualifiers for Korea/Japan and for Germany, and we only drew with them on the road to South Africa.
Learning the lessonsThis is not the first time injury has disrupted Villar’s distinguished association with the FIFA World Cup. It was at Germany 2006 that he tore a muscle in his right leg eight minutes into Paraguay’s first group game, against England in Frankfurt, prompting the earliest substitution of a goalkeeper in world finals’ history.
“It was the biggest blow of my career,” he recalled. “I won my place during the qualifiers, made it to the World Cup and then got injured in the first game. It was difficult to take and I went through a lot of suffering. I knew, though, that I’d get the chance to make up for it all.”
Even when he was playing, Chiqui already acted like a coach. He never spoke much but he always said the right thing, and you could tell his future lay in coaching.
His faith was rewarded in South Africa four years later, as Villar stood tall in a side that reached the last eight for the first time in Paraguay’s history and came so close to ending the hopes of eventual world champions Spain.
That performance is the benchmark by which the current Albirroja crop must now judge themselves, though Villar is confident that new coach Arce, a team-mate of his at Germany 2006, can take the national side forwards.
“Even when he was playing, Chiqui already acted like a coach,” commented the custodian. “He never spoke much but he always said the right thing, and you could tell his future lay in coaching. He wants the players to know his door is always open and to build a two-way relationship, which really should make it easier for him and us to adapt to each other.”
No fearFollowing Paraguay’s false start in the Brazil 2014 qualifiers, Villar knows his job is to keep the goals out and ensure confidence remains high in a team that has grown accustomed to success: “We’ve qualified for the last four World Cups with different players and coaches and that puts a huge amount of responsibility on our shoulders. People’s expectations have increased and it’s not enough just to qualify now: we have to do it as quickly as possible and to finish first if we can.”
The skipper insists there is no fear of failure, however. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in what we have,” he said. “We know what we can achieve and we know the rivals we’re up against. This qualifying competition is going to be a lot tighter than previous ones, though I do think teams are going to be a bit less cautious. I can see games being more open.”
Given the absence of Brazil from the qualifying competition, Villar is more than hopeful of making his third FIFA World Cup finals appearance in 2014: “I can picture myself there. There are some really good keepers coming along, but it’s so great to be in the national team that you’ll do whatever it takes to get there, whether it’s on the pitch, in the squad or even looking in from the outside as a fan.
“We need to play good football and get the results,” he added, setting out the recipe for going all the way. “It’s essential we’re strong at home and try to pick up points away.”
That task starts next month, when Ecuador and Chile will test Paraguay and Villar’s desire to keep on breaking new ground.