Our man in Asunción on why Paraguay are quietly confident heading into the Copa América.
If you want to cheer for a plucky underdog at this year’s Copa America then Paraguay are your team. Their small population of 6,000,000 (or 6,000 if you believe their most famous female export Larissa Riquelme)*, relatively small land mass in South American terms, and lack of funds (only Bolivia have a smaller GDP per head) will make them perennial underdogs. But this year they can also be considered dark horses, even though their opening game against Ecuador on July 3rd will be their first competitive outing since they were narrowly beaten by Spain in the World Cup quarter-finals. That was the furthest they had ever reached on the world’s biggest stage and it was the third time in their last three World Cup knockout games they were defeated by a team that went on to the final (2002 Germany, 1998 France). Here I assess the reasons why Paraguay are more than just spirited minnows.
The 48-year-old Argentine has now been in charge of Paraguay for just over four years, which makes him the second-longest serving manager going into the tournament behind Oscar Tabarez (although at the time of writing they’d both been in charge for 63 games). This stability is key, at the last Copa America in 2007 he had just inherited the side and began experimenting ahead of the important World Cup qualifiers. Now he knows his players, he knows his directors and he has earned the respect of both players, fans and the press. Also don’t be fooled by his country of birth; he may be Argentinian but he’s spent the best part of nine years in Asunción having coached domestic giants Cerro Porteño and Libertad before taking the reins of the Albirroja. Martino is often a serious and very balanced character but when his charges won the penalty shootout against Japan at the World Cup he was reduced to tears – that’s what managing Paraguay means to him.
Confidence is infectious, and the whole country has it. This year was Paraguay’s bicentenary celebrating 200 years of independence from Spain. But it was more than that it was a wave national confidence that swept the country with adverts and government propaganda reminding people of all the successes of their homeland. Journalists are touting the team’s chances as well, José Mari Troche^ who writes for leading national broadsheet ABC Color says “The Albirroja will head down to Buenos Aires with a favourites tag…whoever wants to take the Copa will have to fight for it, toe to toe, with those dressed in red and white.” The APF (Paraguay Football Association) are bullish as well, their president Juan Angel Napout confirmed that “Paraguay will put up a fight to win the Copa America”, comments which were later echoed by Martino. “In the last tournament we treated it as a test ahead of the 2010 World Cup Qualifiers. This time it’s different. We’re coming [to Argentina] to win it”.
At the time of writing Paraguay have kept four clean sheets in their last five games and whichever back four Martino picked has been organised and comfortable defending set pieces. But that has never been Paraguay’s problem, during the World Cup it was in front of goal where they struggled. They only managed 3 goals (the least of all the quarter finalists) and not a single one came from the strikers. This year Lucas Barrios comes in on the back of a Bundesliga title and has had more time to form partnerships with his new teammates (he only gained Paraguayan citizenship in April 2010). Despite his lack of club action, Roque Santa Cruz is just one goal from becoming Paraguay’s all-time top scorer which should provide ample motivation for a player often criticized for not giving 100 per cent. Someone who hasn’t made the squad is Oscar Cardozo**, who may regularly find the net in Portugal and Europe for Benfica but his international return has been poor, five goals in thirty-eight appearances. Martino said there was “no special reason” for leaving out the player and the talented Federico Santander of Toulouse may now get a chance to shine.
The Monday after Cardozo was dropped the sports supplement of the leading national newspaper ran with “One goal from the record” with a photo of Roque Santa Cruz. The fact that a key player of the last two major tournaments had been dropped was only given two tiny paragraphs inside the paper. What a contrast to his colleague across the Rio Corrientes, Sergio Batista of Argentina, who has every meeting with every player intensely scrutinised, gets sent off to Nigeria to play friendlies and is constantly ducking stinging criticisms from his boss (Juilo Grondona) and his former teammate (Diego Maradona). In general there is great respect between Gerado Martino and the broadsheet press who rarely stray from the ‘official’ line to try and cause needless controversy. This also links in to what I previously said about national confidence and it represents a general patriotism around all Paraguayan sports teams.
A special motivation
Whether you follow Paraguayan football closely or not I’m willing to bet you’ve heard the story of Salvador Cabañas. The striker was shot in the head from point blank range in 2010 in a Mexican bar by a leading drug trafficker. Incredibly he survived and optimistically he stated that he would return to professional football despite the bullet still lodged in his skull. Almost 18 months on and his physio claimed he was at 100% physical fitness, the next day he trained with the Paraguay squad as a guest. It has since been confirmed that he will travel to the Copa America as an honorary member of the group. The player himself is delighted to be back among his colleagues “it’s very motivating for me and important as well” he said on the 10th of June. But he is also an inspiration and a motivation to his teammates and the whole Paraguay set up. “Salvador’s presence makes us all feel good. He is well and that makes us feel better” commented Gerardo Martino. There is no doubt the presence of El Mariscal will have an uplifting effect for all involved in Paraguay.
So when you start watching the world’s oldest international tournament on 1 July don’t assume it will be a third straight title for Brazil, or a seventh title on home soil (and a record fifteenth overall) for Argentina. Paraguay’s class of 2011 is looking to emulate their heroes from 1953 and 1979 and while they certainly aren’t in the same league as the aforementioned favourites they are lurking in the wings should Messi, Neymar, Robinho and co fluff their lines.
Finally an idiot’s guide to the Paraguay football team:
Honours: Copa America 1953, 1979
Manager: Gerardo Martino
Player to Watch: Victor ‘Topo’ Caceres
Fan’s Favourite: Nelson Haedo Valdez
Ladies Favourite: Roque Santa Cruz
Star in the Making: Marcelo Estigarribia
Leading goalscorer: Jose Saturnino Cardozo – 25 gls
Most capped player: Carlos ‘Colorado’ Gamarra – 110 caps
Do say: “Brazil are only better because they’ve got 30 times as many people”
Don’t say: “Lucas Barrios? I thought he was Argentinian.”
Here are some links to a few things I mentioned:
Ralph Hannah is English but Paraguay is his adopted country (he’s even got the ID card to prove it) and writes about Paraguayan and South American football. He will be supporting Paraguay avidly via the TV at this year’s Copa America but no, he supports England when the two teams play each other. Twitter @paraguayralph