“Paredes, we’re short of right-backs. Do you fancy playing there?”
It is September 2010, and memories of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ are growing a little hazy. Only one month into his job as Ecuador coach, Reinaldo Rueda calls up Juan Carlos Paredes for the first time, with the idea of asking him to play in an altogether new position.
Aged 23 at the time, Paredes, who goes by the nickname Hormiga (The Ant), was a wide man by trade. Given the opportunity to represent his country, however, he had no hesitation in answering the Colombian’s call.
After all, it was not the first occasion on which he had been asked to switch positions. A year earlier, during his spell with Deportivo Cuenca, the club’s Argentinian coach Guillermo Duro suggested he move from his position wide in a front three and slot in on the right side of midfield.
Taking up the story, in conversation with FIFA.com, the affable Paredes said: “He (Duro) said to me: ‘You’re quick, you’ll have more space and you’ll play better’. And he was right,” added the Ecuadorian, who has spent the last two seasons playing in both positions for Watford in the English Premier League. “I’ve made the most of those things in doing my job as a full-back, and here I am.”
Just a few days after their first chat, Rueda handed the player his international debut, in a friendly against Mexico. Athletic, a tireless worker and blessed with the ability to know when to stay back and when to push forward, he has shown that he belongs in the position and has made himself a regular in the Ecuador set-up.
Growing into the role
It was for that very reason that he was puzzled by Rueda’s decision to leave him out of the squad for the 2011 Copa America. An admirer of Brazil’s Maicon and Germany’s Philipp Lahm, Paredes recalled that surprise omission: “El Profe (Rueda) felt that my performance levels had dropped a little, and I respected his decision and kept on working. After the tournament was over, he called me up and I haven’t been out of the squad since.”
Paredes is not wrong. Between June 2012 and November 2015, he started 42 consecutive games for his country, among them 14 of Ecuador’s 16 qualifiers for Brazil 2014 and their three matches at the finals. Though La Tri failed to progress beyond the group phase in Brazil, the player’s showings there meant he has kept his place under current national team boss Gustavo Quinteros.
His long run in the starting line-up came to an end in March this year, when a muscle injury sidelined him for the home game with Paraguay on matchday five of Russia 2018 qualifying tournament, which ended in a 2-2 draw, putting an end to Ecuador’s perfect start in the competition. “I don’t feel like an automatic starter and I’m not worried about statistics,” he said. “I just want to do my job and make a contribution. I was just sorry I wasn’t there to help the team.”
Though the press celebrated his return for the next qualifier, against Colombia, Paredes was powerless to prevent a 3-1 defeat to Colombia. Despite that setback, Ecuador lie second in the qualification group, level on points with Uruguay, and have high hopes of making the world finals. “We’re pleased with the way things have gone up to now,” he said. “If you compare what we’re doing now with the previous campaign, we’ve picked up better results away from home. We’re maturing.”
Hopes for the future
A positive outlook is one of Paredes’ many attributes, one he inherited from his mother Carlina. “I lost my father at the age of three, and she’s performed both roles since then. She’s always supported me, even when I used to ruin my shoes playing football at school,” he recalled.
It was with his family in his hometown of Esmeraldas that he forged the character that has helped him overcome the challenges football has posed him, such as the time when Aucas turned him down in 2005 or when, three years later and having turned professional, he was declared surplus to requirements at Deportivo Cuenca, the club he supports and for whom he would later return.
It was there, in his local neighbourhood, where he used to play matches for ten or 20 dollars, that he earned his distinctive nickname. “My friends started calling me that because they said I was as light as an ant. They’re hard workers, they’re selfless and they work together as a team. I like the name,” he explained.
A firm believer in God and a lover of salsa and rice, Paredes made his move to Watford before Brazil 2014, having won an Ecuadorian league title with Deportivo Quito, spent two seasons with the mighty Barcelona of Guayaquil and impressed on international duty: “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I’d always dreamed of playing in England, and I don’t regret it.”
Even after helping the club earn promotion to the English top flight and then losing his first-team place, the determined Paredes is still happy where he is: “It’s not an easy situation, though I want to fight for my place and stay here.”
That same spirit shines through when talk turns to Ecuador’s upcoming rivals in the World Cup qualifiers: “Brazil are really tough opponents, but we need to forget about names and focus on what we can do on the pitch. They’ve struggled in Quito for quite a long time now. As for Peru, they’ve come on, just like us, and they’ve got some talented players. They know they can’t afford to drop any more points in Lima.”
Qualifying for the world finals has become something of an obligation for Ecuador, as their fans like to make clear. “Their mentality has changed, and that’s good,” said Paredes. “Ours has too, though, the attitude of the players in the national team. It’s all good, and there’s no need for us to feel intimidated.”
Paredes knows what he is talking about. He did not shirk the challenge of moving to right-back, and look how far he has come since then.