Good things come to those who wait, as Lucas Barrios would surely attest. Fresh from a training session with Montpellier on March 10, the Paraguayan striker answered his telephone for a pre-arranged interview with FIFA.com, only to cut short the conversation. “I’m sorry, but can we speak again in five minutes?” he asked, the joy and excitement obvious in his voice. “I’ve got the national coach on the line and he’s just selected me.”
The call from Ramon Diaz had come out of the blue, but this was precisely the news that Barrios had long been hoping for. After three years in the wilderness, the player who made his name with Colo Colo and Borussia Dortmund was back in the Paraguay fold.
Those three years were largely spent coping with injuries and occupying the bench at Guangzhou Evergrande in China PR and Russian outfit Spartak Moscow, where he seemed to suffer more fitness problems than he scored goals.
When he spoke a little later to FIFA.com, Barrios shared his thoughts on his renewed form, his return to the national side and his optimism for Paraguay’s future under new coach, Ramon Diaz. Excerpts:
Lucas, what has happened to your twin brother – the player who looked just like you and wore the same shirt, but did not score a single goal for Montpellier until December?
It’s true that the first few months were tough. I arrived at the end of August and the time it took me to integrate into the team, move from Russia to France and get used to French football cost me a lot in terms of adaptation. By the end of November, I started to feel better, and in the first few games in December I started to play more regularly and began scoring again. Since then, my luck has returned in front of goal.
Was it easier working to get back to your best at Montpellier than it might have been at a big club, with lots of pressure?
For me, it’s difficult to say there’s no pressure. When you’ve achieved things in football in the past, people obviously have expectations. Montpellier expected a lot from me, and right from the very first months. They wanted the Lucas who played for Dortmund. I went through a difficult time – everyone was asking why I’d chosen Montpellier and told me I could’ve chosen a better club. But I made this choice because first and foremost they chose me and had faith in me. I played with that pressure on me and I managed to get through that slightly tricky period.
Were you afraid that you might never get back to your best after those difficult times and the injuries you picked up in China and Russia?
The only thing keeping me away from my best level was a lack of consistent playing time. I came over from Russia without having played much, and that interrupted my rhythm. But I played in China, scored lots of goals and contributed to us winning the championship. After that I had to deal with an injury, which cost me my place and caused me to lose momentum. You can lose your rhythm, but you mustn’t doubt your ability. I didn’t forget what I was able to do.
You have just been called up by Ramon Diaz for the games against Costa Rica and Mexico on March 26 and 31. What did that mean to you after three years out of the squad and missing the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil?
It’s a huge joy because I’ve worked hard to get back into the squad after some difficult years. It was painful not to be there when the team needed all its players. This call-up is a reward for my efforts, all the work I’ve put in over the last half a year, the tough times I’ve been through and my renewed form in front of goal, thanks in part to Montpellier’s help. I’m happy to have made it, and now I need to show that I can be consistent at that level and that I deserve my place in top-class European football, as I’ve shown in the past.
Paraguay are traditionally renowned for their defensive strength. With a former forward now serving as coach, do you see the team’s style of play changing?
Ramon coming in with his ideas and experience can be beneficial to the side. For us forwards, it’s an advantage to know we have a coach who was an important player in our position. He’s also someone who has won titles and has experience at national and international level. He’s a real boon for Paraguay, and he gives us more of a chance of having a great Copa America. His vision of the game as a striker could change our style, and at the very least it will give us extra options, but we can’t turn our backs on what’s been our major strength: Paraguay have always been a difficult side to beat and we need to stay that way.
Diaz recently told FIFA.com that he is hoping for a lot from experienced players based in Europe. Is that not a perfect description of you?
Exactly, yes (laughs)! Myself and the other experienced players are always available to help the national team. Despite not being called up for two years and having turned 30, I never gave up on the idea of playing for the national side again and helping out. Ramon understands that he needs people – both players and staff – who’d never hesitate to make any sacrifice to help the national team, given the difficult years we went through. If I don’t get called up, I can accept that and support my team without bitterness. Right now, though, I have another chance to help directly, and my only goal is to take the national side back to the level it deserves to be.
Do you see Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay as favourites once again for the Copa America in June, or are you expecting a more open tournament?
Let’s not forget our history just yet – people in South America know all about Paraguay’s quality. We’re a strong team that only missed out on qualifying for the World Cup because we had to implement some big changes. Unfortunately, they didn’t work, but you mustn’t forget that Paraguay were runners-up at the last Copa America. It’s true that no one would back Paraguay to win the Copa America, but, whatever the competition, we’re a team that’s never easy to play against. Given the quality we have, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Paraguay fighting to win the tournament once again this year.
Will it be special for you to play in Chile, where you are still idolised by Colo Colo fans, and against Argentina, who are in Paraguay’s group?
You can never know who the coach will pick, but if I manage to make it into the squad I’ll feel at home in Chile. There are a lot of people who like me there. The Colo Colo fans will support me, and since half the country follows the club, that could mean a fair few supporters for Paraguay (laughs). The game against Argentina will be special because my dad and my family are almost all Argentinian and I was born there, but that’s as far as it goes. I’m 100 per cent committed to Paraguay and on that day Argentina won’t be my second country – they’ll just be a team we need to beat. My mother, the woman who gave me life, also gave me Paraguayan blood and the opportunity to play for the national side. They’re the team I chose and the team I’ll defend to my death.