What is your earliest World Cup memory? I remember France ’98 well, like it was yesterday. We qualified from a ‘group of death’ which included Spain, Bulgaria and Nigeria. Only Paraguay and Nigeria went through.
I was 14 and we watched as Laurent Blanc scored the first ever golden goal in the history of the World Cup in the last 16, which eliminated us from the competition. I looked at my mother and she was crying. She is a big football fan, my mother – very passionate whenever Paraguay play.
I looked around the room and everyone was crying. I felt like crying too – I felt the emotion in the room. But I looked at my mother and said, "I will play in the World Cup for Paraguay. I will score in the World Cup finals for Paraguay."
She never forgot that moment – she always reminds me. I made her very proud and I will score in the World Cup. I started all three games for Paraguay in the 2006 World Cup finals but didn’t score.
You played against England in the 2006 finals… I’ve got bad memories of that game too, because we lost the match with an own goal. It was an equal game – not a very good match – and England didn’t have many opportunities to score. It was our first in the competition and it should have been 0-0. We never really recovered from that first defeat and went out of the first round, a big disappointment for us. These things happen in football.
What do you think of your group in South Africa? It will not be easy with Italy and Slovakia, but I think it’s possible for Paraguay to go through with Italy. I think we can surprise Italy. Their football is very technical and ours very humble, but we have big hearts. Paraguay v Slovakia is the key game – but I don’t want to discriminate against New Zealand either, because they have been good enough to reach South Africa.
Are Paraguay better than in 2006? Yes. We were often regarded as being too defensive in Germany. Now, we attack more. We still have a good defence, but we attack too. In the qualifying stages we beat Brazil, Argentina and Chile, who finished second in the group on the same points as us. We also have a coach, (Gerardo) Martino, who was himself a very good player. He gives us the trust that we need from a coach. He’s a very reliable person, with a high self-esteem. He never wants to lose or draw: it doesn’t matter if we’re playing in Brazil or Argentina, he wants to win. Because we beat these teams, he believes that we can win the World Cup. He says that this is the best Paraguay team that he has ever had.
Tell us how Paraguay play. We always play with respect, and we also think we are going to win every game. It was that mentality which took us to South Africa. People look at our results and respect us for that. But it’s not just in South America where we have played well. We drew 0-0 with Holland in a friendly game and 0-0 with France.
What’s it like to score the only goal against your biggest rivals Argentina? It’s true that they are our biggest rival. They’re nice people – I’ve got Argentinian friends – but they think they’re the best. We joke in South America that the Argentinians carry mirrors around so that they can look at themselves. Sometimes Argentina really are the best and that’s why they are so confident, but they are not the best in everything.
I wouldn’t say that we hate Argentina, but we really want to win against them because apart from anything else, they are our neighbours. But it’s more than that because Brazil is also a neighbour and the intensity of the rivalry is not the same. Maybe it’s because Brazil is neighbours with lots of countries.
It was a great honour for me to score against Argentina. It’s hard to describe, but it was easy to feel. I had been named Paraguay’s footballer of the year three times, but that didn’t feel as special as scoring the goal against Argentina which meant that we qualified for South Africa. That was almost like winning the World Cup.
What was the reaction like in your country? I was like a national hero. The president came on the pitch to congratulate me. And the vice president! Life isn’t always easy in Paraguay, so that result brought us a lot of relief.
How are you expected to do in South Africa? We’re from a country of seven million. We’re not big. Far bigger football countries have not qualified.
Our coach thinks that we will win the competition, but I think we can reach the quarter-finals. I think we’re good enough.
You mentioned about life being tough. You know that first hand… I slept under the stand at one of my clubs for two years. Yes, I slept rough. It was an experience which makes me value even more the life I’m living now.
I had an excellent childhood. It was in poverty, but it was nice. I had the joy of being a child from a loving family. We played football with oranges or a ball of socks because we couldn’t buy a football. It was my dream one day to own my own football. I used to always ask the three kings for a football and sometimes I could get one. I would make it last until it was full of holes.
Was it dangerous living rough? Crime is rife in Paraguay. But if you have nothing, what can they steal? I had nothing to give. It was a really tough experience, but it helped me to make me stronger, to value everything I’m getting now.
And if I needed to be born again, I’d do exactly the same. I’m proud of what I’ve been through and where I am now. I’m proud to still call the people I slept rough with, friends. The people who gave me what they could so that I could buy some water. I have a big place in my heart for these people because they had nothing and yet they still helped me through the bad times. I hope that they are proud of what I am doing to help my country. I hope that they watched me score against Argentina and punched the air with joy.
You played against England in 2006. Can England win this World Cup? England are one of the favourites to win. For me the winner will come from Spain, Brazil, England, Germany or Holland.
Capello has been very good for England and he’s showed why he’s one of the best coaches in the world. Then there’s Rooney, who scores even when he is sleeping. Rooney and Messi – I think they will be the most important players in South Africa.
Would you like to play in England? I’d love to play in the Premiership one day. I’ve been very happy in Germany with Werder Bremen and now with Borussia Dortmund. I love watching English football: the big games between Manchester United and Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. I watch Man City for Roque (Santa Cruz).
Is Roque the most important Paraguay player? Roque is an excellent player. In the last ten years he’s been injured for four or five, but he’s one of a few players who have everything. I hope he can play in South Africa because we really need him now.
My team mate Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head in January, so it’s unlikely that he will play. He was stopping himself getting robbed in a bar in Mexico, where he plays. Salvador was the South American footballer of the year in 2007 and is a legend in Paraguay. He was our top scorer in qualifying.
Interview: June 2010.