Almost every South American who chooses a career in professional football dreams of the same things: enjoying success with their local team, moving to one of their country's top clubs and winning titles there before finally seeking sporting acclaim and financial security in Europe. Of course, not everyone follows this well-worn path, some preferring to blaze their own trail instead. In this latter category is Nelson Haedo Valdez, the Paraguay striker who says we can expect great things from his side at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany.
Born in Caaguazu on 28 November 1983, Haedo Valdez was terrorising defences in his homeland with amateur outfit Atletico Tembetary until as recently as 2001. Word of his prodigious talent reached Werder Bremen chairman Jurgen Born during one of his frequent trips to Paraguay, and so he decided to check out the player himself. Such was the impression made by the youngster that Born asked him there and then if he would come to Germany for a trial. Though barely 18, Valdez did not hesitate for a moment, setting off for the Old Continent in December of that year. Though he could not have guessed it at the time, it was a trip that would change his life forever.
Early days in Germany
The trial was a success and Haedo Valdez began 2002 playing for Werder Bremen's second team, where he scored a very respectable 15 goals in 30 games. Blessed with terrifying pace, an abundance of skill and a keen eye for goal, the 1.79m striker made a big impression on first-team coach Thomas Schaaf, who promoted him to the senior ranks in mid-2003. After scoring five goals in 23 games in his first full season, his coach said of the striker: "He likes to impose himself and is not afraid to get hurt."
His first major tournament with Paraguay came in November 2003 after he was called into Rolando Chilavert's squad for the FIFA World Youth Championship in the United Arab Emirates. Incredible as it sounds, the coach had not actually seen Haedo Valdez play but when asked about the youngster, replied: "In Germany, they say he's good, so why not give him a try?" Meeting his new team-mates for the first time at the tournament, the striker was given a place in the starting XI.
His best performance would come in Paraguay's final group game, coincidentally against Germany. "That day, I was up against Christian Schulz and Alexander Walke, two of my best friends at Bremen. Walke told me that if I managed to score against him, he'd pay for a night on the town. He had to pay up too, because I scored in our 2-0 win," the player recalls fondly. Paraguay won their group but unfortunately got no further, losing out to Spain in the last 16.
In spite of his promising form with the U-20 team, Paraguay coach Anibal Ruiz decided against bringing him into the senior squad for the early stages of the South American qualifiers for Germany 2006. Ahead of him in the pecking order were Jose Cardozo and Roque Santa Cruz, the team's immovable strike partnership, as well as Nelson Cuevas, Salvador Cabanas and Cesar Ramirez, who themselves had to settle for a place on the bench more often than not.
Haedo Valdez was also omitted from the Paraguayan U-23 side that secured a historic qualification for the 2004 Olympic Football Tournament in January of that year by virtue of eliminating Brazil. However, the coach of that U-23 side, Carlos Jara, would bring the striker into the senior squad for the Copa America in Peru six months later along with many of the players who had qualified for Athens 2004.
After missing out on his team's opening game, a defeat of Brazil, Haedo Valdez then started the next three games in Peru. Though he did not manage to score himself, he played a significant role in helping Paraguay win their group. However, they failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals after losing 3-1 to Uruguay in their following game.
Then, towards the end of July with the Copa America over and Haedo Valdez and his colleagues preparing for the Olympic Games, word came from Germany that Werder Bremen were requesting his return. The player dutifully complied with club orders, though he would consequently miss out on his team's march to the final in Athens and a historic silver medal.
Far from letting his head drop, Haedo Valdez worked even harder on his return to Germany, where he had won the Bundesliga and German Cup the previous season. But in September, disappointed at again being overlooked by Ruiz for the senior team, on this occasion for Paraguay's qualifier against Venezuela, the player went public with his grievances. "I find it odd that Ruiz hasn't selected me. Apart from Santa Cruz, I'm the only Paraguayan playing in the (UEFA) Champions League and established in the country that will be hosting the next World Cup. Roque gets to play, yet I'm not even in the squad. I don't want to cause controversy, and I know there are other good strikers (available), but I just want to say that I'd like to be included."
Ruiz must have heard his plea as he was back in the squad in October for his country's qualifiers against Colombia and Peru. Though he would not even be on the bench in Barranquilla, he started the match against Peru in Asuncion. While Haedo Valdez would later miss Paraguay's final game of last year against Uruguay, 2005 would see him actively involved in the national team in spite of a spate of injuries.
His most telling contribution came in the latter stages of qualifying. First, there was his man-of-the-match performance against Argentina in September, when his pace and skill had the normally composed visitors in disarray. "I tried to find the net from every possible angle, but (Roberto) Abbondanzieri denied me on three occasions and I hit the post on a fourth. I'm leaving here happy, nonetheless, as we won with a goal from Roque Santa Cruz, who has been out injured for a long time with Bayern Munich," the player said after his team's first ever win over the Albiceleste in the history of the South American qualifiers.
However, his finest moment to date in an Albirroja shirt came on 8 October against Venezuela in Maracaibo, where he grabbed the goal that secured Paraguay's place in Germany. "Any one of us could have scored that goal. The important thing was to win, and we did that thanks to the collective effort of the team. All the same, I'm on cloud nine," the player said after the historic 1-0 win. So impressive was his display that the Paraguayan daily La Nación declared the following day: "Nelson Haedo Valdez has justifiably won his place in the starting XI."
Although there is still some time to go before the FIFA World Cup kicks off, the 21-year-old is dreaming of making a major impact in a country where he has already tasted success. "Paraguay have a great squad, which means it would be illogical not to expect a great performance from us next year."