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Darío Lezcano: "It was my dream to play for Paraguay"

Darío Lezcano: "It was my dream to play for Paraguay"

Dario Lezcano went away after the most recent double-header in the South American qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ with a bittersweet feeling. The 25-year-old attacker had every reason to be pleased with his contribution as one of the leading figures in March's games, in which he scored three times for Paraguay: twice in Quito against Ecuador, and once against Brazil in Asuncion.

But Lezcano's goal scoring exploits did not prove enough to earn his side three points in the encounters. Worse still, on both occasions La Albirroja let victory slip from their grasp in added time, being pegged back for 2-2 draws that left them in seventh place, outside the automatic qualification spots and play-off berths after a third of the way along the road to Russia. "What happened in Ecuador was understandable," Lezcano told from Germany, where he plies his trade for Ingolstadt, acknowledging that fatigue is a factor when playing at altitude in Quito – and all the more so against buoyant opponents. "But the Brazil result really hurt. We were 2-0 up and we got too caught up trying to protect our lead. Dropping four points in such a way is virtually unacceptable."

Lezcano only made his senior Paraguay debut against Argentina in October last year and has just five caps to his name, all in World Cup qualifiers. Yet the newcomer leads the goal scoring charts in qualifying with four goals, alongside Ecuador's Felipe Caicedo. Nevertheless, despite his obvious pleasure at this prolific start to his full international career, it is another table that he is more concerned about.

"I still find it hard to look at the standings and see us down where we are. Every point is crucial for us and we could be right up there. There isn't much of a gap: if you win one, you rise up. It's important we get into the qualifying places and shift the pressure on to other teams," said the forward, whose pace, power, personality and hammer of a right foot are his most notable attributes.

A path less trodden
Lezcano had never had a look-in for Paraguay at senior level before Ramon Diaz called him up last September for the beginning of the qualifying campaign. The media dubbed his inclusion a "big surprise" and they had a point: this is a player who has never played in the top flight in his homeland and who had spent the previous eight years in Switzerland, half of them in the second division.

The story of how he ended up in such an unusual destination for Paraguayans goes back to his childhood, when he used to travel from his native Caaguazu to the family smallholding in Ciudad del Este, where he would help his father farm corn, peanuts and cassava. "We were very poor and although I enjoyed working the land, I played football whenever I could. When I was 12, I started to take it seriously."

After turning 16, he signed for second-tier Sportivo Trinidense and represented his country in the 2007 South American U-17 Championship. "By that point I just wanted to make it as a professional; I didn't care where. When the chance to go to Switzerland came up, I didn't think twice," he admitted about his subsequent move to FC Wil. At first he struggled in his new surroundings, despite the help of a team-mate and fellow Paraguayan, Ivan Gonzalez. "I arrived in the coldest period and it took me almost a year to adapt. When Ivan went back home, I brought my wife over, we started a family and that played a fundamental role. We had tough times, but who doesn't?"

A combination of modern technology, his wife's cooking and a steady supply of terere – the traditional herbal infusion which is so popular in Paraguay – quelled his homesickness, and things quickly started to click for this admirer of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. He joined Thun in 2011 and from there moved on to Luzern, a medium-sized club by Swiss standards, in 2012.

A big break
Lezcano continued to kick on and things took another upward turn with the appointment of German legend Markus Babbel as coach. Indeed, it was the former Bayern Munich, Stuttgart and Liverpool defender who ended up recommending him to Ingolstadt. The sharpshooter spoke German by that stage and there was even talk of him potentially representing Switzerland: "That came about because I was eligible for citizenship. But my dream was to play for Paraguay. When I found out that they were monitoring me, it was an incredible feeling. It was in my hands." After a run of nine goals in 11 games for Luzern, the longed-for call-up arrived: "I had about 100 missed calls on my phone and I was alarmed, but then I realized what was going on," he reminisced, his voice betraying his emotion.

Although Lezcano did not feature in the opening qualifier against Venezuela, he was a surprise starter in the second match against Argentina. "I was over the moon and said to myself: 'This is your shot, don't waste it.' And I delivered," said the man nicknamed Motochorro (Motorbike Bandit), a moniker he was given in the Paraguay camp on account of his speed.

So impressive was his performance that, as well as gaining him his first plaudits from the press and fans, it won over Diaz, who has made him one of the first names on the team sheet. As previously noted, Lezcano has responded with goals, starting with opening his account against Bolivia in Asuncion, after which he "couldn't sleep that night".

Despite his meteoric rise, Lezcano is not getting carried away and has set himself realistic targets. On the one hand, he wants to further establish himself at Ingolstadt, who have secured Bundesliga safety with plenty of time to spare: "They're a great club, they've treated me fantastically and we're aiming to establish ourselves in the Bundesliga."

His other challenge is to hold down his hard-earned spot in the national team, where he is competing with big names such as Lucas Barrios, Nelson Valdez and Edgar Benitez. "They're great players and that spurs me on. I'm having an incredible period and I want to be at their level."  


Photo: AFP