Though the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ marks Justo Villar's third trip to the game's global showpiece, the Paraguay goalkeeper is determined to savour every moment after his all-too-fleeting experience in Germany four years ago. Then he travelled to the finals after keeping goal throughout the qualifying round, only to bow out injured just eight minutes into his side's opening clash with England.
"Yes, it was a huge blow," the keeper, capped 73 times at senior level by Los Guaraníes, said in an exclusive interview with FIFA. "I'd played all through qualifying and was an important part of the team, so I had high hopes of having a great World Cup," added Villar, his country's third-choice custodian at Korea/Japan 2002. "That's football, though, and I kept plugging away. I've now got the chance to be here, thanks to my perseverance. The Germany injury was really tough, and it would have been for anybody. But now I'm very grateful to be here."
The Real Valladolid keeper showed admirable consistency during Paraguay's successful negotiation of the gruelling CONMEBOL qualifying phase. The former Newell's Old Boys, Libertad and Sol de America player started 17 of his nation's 18 games, a total of 1,530 on-field minutes, during which he conceded just 12 goals at a rate of 0.7 per game. Not surprisingly, his national coach, Gerardo Martino, is full of praise. "Well, I find it hard to be objective when we're talking about Justo. He's an extraordinary goalkeeper. He's got very quick reflexes and brings a safe pair of hands to the team."
The Argentinian coach believes Villar has other important qualities to add to the mix. "He's got a lot to offer as a leader, because he's a player who really pays attention to the small details and he's very good towards his team-mates. For that reason he’s a huge help to our coaching staff. He's the ideal person to provide a link between the players and the coaches."
In good company
Villar himself acknowledges he has to maintain the high standards set by his distinguished predecessors between the posts for Paraguay. "It's true that Paraguay have always produced good goalkeepers," said the 32-year-old, who is determined to match up to past greats such as Ever Hugo Almeida (his coach early in his career), Roberto 'Gato' Fernandez and of course the inimitable Jose Luis Chilavert. "With him in goal, we really hit the heights. He was the best in the world on a number of occasions."
Taking possession of the No1 jersey after the larger-than-life figure of Chilavert, a custodian who excelled at scoring goals as well as keeping them out, was no mean feat. "Given how much he meant to the Paraguayan fans, at the start I had to go through a transitional period, which was quite tricky," he continued. "But seeing first-hand how he and other great goalkeepers behaved and how they forged a bond with their team-mates helped me develop a stronger personality."
This personality will no doubt be required shortly, with Paraguay bidding to qualify from Group F where they will face Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand. Yet despite the daunting task for La Albirroja of opening their South Africa 2010 bid against the holders on 14 June, Villar made sure to sign off in confident mood: "With the benefit of nine or ten years in the national squad, I'm able to say things are going really well."