By Ralph Hannah in Asuncion
While the world may have been waiting to see the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar line up in Sunday’s Copa America final, it should be no surprise to hear that the real hero of the tournament has been a goalkeeper. After all, not including the goal-laden third place play-off on Saturday, only 1.92 goals per game have been scored so far, the lowest since 1975 - when the Copa America moved to the current 26-game format.
While both Renny Vega of Venezuela and Uruguay's Fernando Muslera have been outstanding during the tournament, there is one custodian who has been a national superhero. Step forward Justo Villar, the veteran Paraguay captain who has risen out of the enormous shadow cast by legendary keeper Jose Luis Chilavert to grab the limelight at the 2011 Copa America.
Those following South American football might not be so surprised by some of the match winning displays from Villar this month. He started his career at Sol de America just outside of Asuncion, and while it is not a big club he was lucky enough to join while Ever Almeida and Modesto Sandoval were coaching there. Almeida was a goalkeeper who won it all; 10 Paraguayan league titles, two Copa Libertadores and even the Club World Cup (then Intercontinental Cup) in 1979 during nearly two decades at Olimpia.
|SNAPSHOT | JUSTO VILLAR
Sandoval, on the other hand, was the goalkeeping coach at the time and Villar is just one of many top shot-stoppers he has trained. The list of alumni is prestigious, and includes Chilavert, Colombia’s Faryd Mondragon and World Cup runner-up and two time Copa America winner, Sergio Goycochea of Argentina.
It was with Sandoval who Villar worked once more in Libertad, one of the Paraguayan 'big four', and where he enjoyed back-to-back league titles in 2002 and 2003. Indeed, the 2003 Clausura title was decided on a penalty shoot-out after a 0-0 draw and Villar had more penalty heroics that year. In the first round of the Copa Sudamericana, he saved a spot-kick from German Centurion as Libertad overcame Guarani.
In 2004, the keeper reached the pinnacle of his domestic career as he won the Argentine Apertura with Newell’s Old Boys, conceding just 11 goals, and was voted Paraguayan Footballer of the Year by leading newspaper ABC Color.
Until recently, Villar hadn’t repeated this success at international level. He sat on the bench during the 2002 World Cup and was injured in the first game in 2006, but his heroics in the Albirroja began last year in South Africa. Villar kept three consecutive clean sheets against Slovakia, New Zealand and Japan as Paraguay progressed to the quarter-final for the first time in their history. Against Spain, he was a constant thorn in their side, and even saved a penalty from Xabi Alonso as Paraguay gave the eventual champions a stern challenge before ultimately falling.
In Argentina so far, Villar has been Paraguay’s man of the tournament and has won the hearts of the nation. After his world class performance against Brazil, social networking sites were full of photos of Villar dressed as Superman, and even one with his face superimposed over the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. Against Venezuela, his family home was invaded by cameras, who captured his wife and children’s tears as Villar saved Paraguay once again with a series of superb blocks before making a crucial stop in the shoot-out.
Come Sunday, all eyes will be on Estudiantes de la Plata’s most recent signing, and six million Paraguayans will be hoping 'SuperJusto' can do it one more time.