Vargas: I’ve still got a lot to prove
Five years a professional, the explosive 22-year-old striker has been in razor-sharp form over the last 12 months. Making up for an underwhelming debut season for La U in 2010, when he managed only 4 goals in 32 appearances, he has struck 28 in 49 in all competitions this year, ten of them coming in his side’s triumphant Apertura campaign and a tournament record 11 to fire Universidad de Chile to glory in the Copa Sudamericana, the club’s first international title.
To cap it all, Vargas has recently signed on the dotted line for Napoli and will make the move to Italy as soon as the Clausura season comes to an end, with La U set to play Universidad Catolica in the second leg of their semi-final tomorrow. Awaiting the winners in the final are Cobreloa, the club where Vargas spent three seasons after making his professional debut in 2006.
And as if that were not enough, the youngster has also forced his way back into the Chile side, scoring against world champions Spain in a friendly and against Peru in a qualifying match for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
“I don’t know,” said the modest Vargas, when informed by FIFA.com that he is now widely regarded as Chile’s brightest prospect. “I think I’ve still got a lot to prove.”
Born to play the game
As his mother Pamela recently explained in an interview with Chilean newspaper La Tercera, Vargas always wanted to be a footballer: “He took the ball with him even when he went to the toilet, and all he ever thought about was football. His headmaster wanted to send him to a psychologist but one of his teachers put a stop to that because they could see it was his passion.”
After failing to make his way at Universidad Catolica and Palestino, the budding forward tried his luck on a football reality show called Adidas Selection Team, going head-to-head with 32 other hopefuls. “It was a positive experience because I learned a lot,” he said of the programme, despite failing to win. “You learn from everything in life.”
It was on the strength of his televised efforts and his fine displays at an amateur tournament in Puerto Montt in the summer of 2006 that both Universidad de Chile and Colo Colo sought to draft him into their youth teams.
One man who did not see that as the right path for him was his amateur team coach Andres Alvarado: “I thought to myself, ‘This lad has never played youth football. What’s the point of him joining a youth team at the age of 16? Let's give him a short cut’.”
Pulling a few strings, Alvarado spoke to the then Cobreloa coach Jorge Aravena, a friend of his, and arranged for the club to give Vargas a trial. Aravena, who later gave the young forward his debut, takes up the story: “I watched the players and after three days I asked the club to sign him. He’s got everything. He can hit the ball with either foot and he’s good in the air. He was a centre-forward but as I already had Lucas Barrios I had to stick him out on the wing.”
“That was against Puerto Montt and I did well,” recalled Vargas. “I was only 16 but I had faith in myself, which helped me stay relaxed. That’s when my dream started.”
Making the breakthrough
Four appearances came his way in 2006, all of them from the bench, and five under Gustavo Huerta the following season. He scored his first league goal in 2008 against Huachipato, adding three more in 20 games in all, and also running out for Chile at youth level.
His pace, touch and running off the ball did not go unnoticed by national head coach Marcelo Bielsa, who brought Vargas into the U-23 side for the 2009 Toulon Tournament, the player starring as Chile took the trophy. He completed his rise through the national ranks in November that year, making his debut in a friendly against Paraguay. After being named in the squad to face Panama two months later, however, he failed to retain his place and missed out on the trip to South Africa 2010.
By this time the rising star had signed for La U, although his progress was hampered by the fact that Uruguayan coach Gerardo Pelusso deployed him in an unfamiliar midfield role. His luck changed with the arrival of the Argentinian Jorge Sampaoli at the start of 2011. Promptly restored to his rightful place, Vargas was quickly in among the goals and earning himself a dream move to Europe: “I’m happy but a little nervous too. I never thought I'd be making the switch to Italian football so quickly.”
Having achieved one goal, he also has his sights on another: helping Claudio Borghi’s Chile side reach Brazil 2014: "The qualifiers aren’t going to be easy but we’re feeling relaxed. Chile have got the squad to make it to the world finals.”