WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Eight minutes.
That’s how long Justo Villar lasted as Paraguay’s starting goalie in World Cup 2006.
After sitting on the bench for the entire World Cup in South Korea/Japan in 2002 behind José Luis Chilavert, Villar’s debut on soccer’s biggest show ended with his being pulled off stage before breaking a sweat.
Three minutes into the game, he allowed an own goal, when defender Carlos Gamarra accidentally knocked the ball into the net for what turned out to be the decisive score in a 1-0 loss to England. Five minutes later, Villar was on the bench, writhing in pain after tearing a thigh muscle that sidelined him for the final two games. He was replaced by Aldo Bobadilla.
“It was tough, I could feel a lump in my throat,” Villar told FIFA.com. “Now that I’ve got another shot at it, maybe I can make up for that. I hope to be there to help the team give a good showing, and finally get that World Cup monkey off my back."
It will take a superb performance for Villar to help La Albirroja advance past the round of 16 for the first time in eight World Cups. Paraguay, ranked 30th in the world, opens Group F against defending champion and fifth-ranked Italy on June 14, followed by matches against 38th-ranked Slovakia on June 20 and 78th-ranked New Zealand on June 24. Paraguay is no stranger to the World Cup, as it’s one of five teams in the Western Hemisphere to have qualified for each of the past four tournaments, joining Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and the United States.
But unlike those teams, Paraguay has never reached the quarterfinals.
“Paraguay has always had a reputation in South America for having one of the strongest defenses on the continent, but lately we’ve also become known for our attacking qualities,” Paraguayan striker Roque Santa Cruz told FIFA.com. “This combination will make us hard to beat.”
And throughout World Cup qualifying, Villar has been the defensive lynchpin. Paraguay conceded just 16 goals in 18 games – the second-fewest in CONMEBOL – with Villar yielding 12.
“I don’t think we’ve gone downhill defensively – I think we’ve improved, and we’re lucky to have some very creative attacking talent,” Villar told FIFA.com. “We’ve managed to put together a more rounded team.”
Despite Villar’s recent form for the national team, he may be shaky in South Africa after struggling to earn consistent playing time for Real Valladolid of Spain’s La Liga. In 23 games, he has 66 saves and posted four shutouts, but has played just 45 minutes the past five games combined after getting drilled in a 3-0 loss to league cellar dweller Xerez.
Paraguayan Coach Gerardo Martino has emphasized the importance of using the players in top form, and Villar’s play during qualifying vaulted him atop the depth chart. He’s ahead of Paraguay’s Cerro Porteño’s Diego Barreto and Colombia’ Deportivo Independiente de Medellín’s Bobadilla.
Martino has not officially named Villar the starter, but he demonstrated his faith in the 32-year-old by naming him captain. It’s added pressure for Villar, who must back an offense that was dealt a huge blow when forward Salvador Cabañas, the team’s leading scorer during qualifying with six goals, was sidelined indefinitely after being shot in the head at a bar in Mexico City on Jan. 25.
“We’ve got mature players and a very able coaching staff. We have to play really well in the group stage and qualify for the knockout round,” Villar told FIFA.com. “Paraguayan football is improving, but we still have work to do. We have to have something to show for all we’ve achieved since [winning the silver medal at the] 2004 Olympics. If the coaching staff, players and fans all band together, we can show just what Paraguay can do at a World Cup.”