Juan Barrera is a player who catches the eye for a host of reasons, whether it be his smooth two-footedness, creativity on the ball or the leadership qualities befitting a talented captain. Yet it is an off-the-field attribute that makes him stand out still further: Barrera is the first Nicaraguan player ever to sign for a European club.
In April this year, shortly before turning 26, Nicaragua’s No10 boarded a plane to Austria to add another chapter to his footballing story. This week, however, he is back in his homeland, determined to keep driving Los Pinoleros towards a historic berth at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Born into a very humble and working-class family, Barrera’s route to the top was anything but straightforward. At just five years of age, the political situation in Nicaragua led his family to make the move to Costa Rica, and it was not until ten years later that Barrera would return to his country of birth – this time leaving his parents behind.
“It’s like a coach of mine used to say: ‘God created football for poor people’. So, ever since I was a child I’ve been chasing the dream to try and make it out [of poverty],” the Rheindorf Altach playmaker told FIFA.com. “I was quite surprised when there was interest in me from an Austrian club. I’d had coaches that told me I was capable of playing in Europe, but a genuine opportunity had never come about. When I signed the contract I was so happy: I was fulfilling one of my lifelong dreams.”
The move to the Old Continent also meant the Ocotal-born schemer, nicknamed El Iluminado (The Visionary), assumed a leadership role for his country.
“I’d not captained the senior side before and what makes it even nicer is the fact that I was chosen by my team-mates,” he explained. “Now there’s more responsibility on my shoulders because I’m not in Nicaragua any more. I have to try and do a good job so that other Nicaraguan players can follow my example and also get the chance to move abroad.
“When I go back to Nicaragua I tell the guys that football’s a global game now and that people don’t worry about your nationality so much. The international game doesn’t just belong to the Italians, the English or Argentinians any longer. If you’re good enough it doesn’t matter where you come from. [Nicaraguan players] need to work hard, keep fighting and keep dreaming in order to make it to a more competitive league and have a better life.”
When asked to sum up the senior national side’s current good run of form, Barrera said: “When things start well they end well. The new coach has changed our mind-set: Henry Duarte has made us believe. He works on the mental side of the game and we’ve achieved loads in that area. Nicaragua are no longer scared or anxious when travelling to take on other countries.”
Even so, Los Pinoleros’ new project could barely have been handed a tougher test in Round 3 of North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying for Russia 2018, in the shape of 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup runners-up Jamaica.
“We were confident that we were going to pick up a good result over there,” said Barrera, reflecting on the mental strength that helped secure Friday's hard-fought 3-2 first-leg win in Kingston. “We had faith in the work we’ve been putting in for months, because this isn’t the result of one week’s work, it’s taken some time. We approached the game calmly, though we gave it the importance it deserved, because we knew it’s an all-or-nothing tie. Speaking for myself, I felt more mature and composed thanks to my time in Europe, and I think I made the most of that,” added Barrera, who has also played club football in Panama and Venezuela.
“We really took advantage of their mistakes and we were always in the lead,” he continued on the narrow first-leg success, which gives Nicaragua a valuable advantage ahead of tonight’s return in Managua. “I think that our performance dipped a little in the second half because of the climate. The humidity in Jamaica makes playing there very difficult.
“It’s in our hands. We’re keeping our feet on the ground because we’ve not won anything yet and there’s 90 minutes still to go. But we’re hoping to successfully close the tie out. We have to finish the tie in Managua playing the way we did over in Kingston, by fighting and battling hard. That’s the only way.”
He should know, having made Nicaraguan football history on the back of sweat, tears, hard graft and, of course, ability. And Juan Barrera is not finished yet…