1954 will forever be remembered as a sad year for Paraguay, the year the country plunged into the 35-year-long dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. But just one year earlier, the country was on a national high. This is the fairytale story of Paraguay at the 1953 Copa America, told by Ralph Hannah.
Towards the end of 1952 the Paraguayan FA found themselves in a dilemma, once again CONMEBOL had designated them as hosts of the showpiece continental tournament in South America, the Copa América. But for the second time the championship could not take place on Paraguayan soil. It was simply impossible for Asunción, a city of 100.000 people and just one hotel to invite the continent to stay for a whole month. There was only one stadium capable of hosting international games, Libertad’s ground, but even that only had a 15.000 capacity. At the time only Uruguay and Argentina had ever played an international game in Paraguay, not even neighbours Brazil had paid them a visit.
So in February 1953 the directors of the Paraguayan FA were busy running the 1953 Copa America not in Asunción but in Lima, Peru. The Andean nation hosting for the first time since 1939, a tournament that Paraguay had high hopes of winning having won their first game 5-1. But under prepared and ill-disciplined they crashed to two defeats and on their return were met by an angry Asuceno public at the capital’s train station hurling abuse at the players and staff. The head coach of that side was Manuel Fleitas Solich, a man synonymous with Paraguayan football having played in their first ever international match and now he was in his fifth spell as national team coach.
The 53-year-old coach brought his squad of 22 players together a full 3 months before departure to Peru as they embarked on a punishing training regime – gym in the morning, football in the afternoons. Solich knew his team were not technically as good as the Brazilians, who shone at the last World Cup, and he couldn’t teach talent. But he could instill discipline, team spirit and ensure his squad was the fittest and strongest come February. Temperatures regularly surpass 40c in the Paraguayan summer but that was no excuse not to train. The drills were relentless as was the discipline, the players slept under the stadium using bunk beds lent to them by a local barracks. Solich may have first coached Paraguay 23 years ago but he wasn’t a dinosaur, he even controlled his player’s diet making sure they all ate at the same café for the duration. Alcohol was banned. This was the kind of attention to detail rarely seen in Europe at the time let alone South America.
The team were built on organization and a solid defence, it was no surprise that after the first two games they were yet to concede, winning 3-0 against Chile and drawing 0-0 with Ecuador. The next match saw the nominal hosts take on the actual hosts in Lima. A tempestuous match where it seemed Solich’s team and dream might unravel. One Paraguayan football historian, Miguel Angel Bestard, described the English referee as “truly incompetent” but I’m unable to agree with his observation that he was so bad he deserved the “soberana trompada” (supreme punch) dished out to him by substitute Milner Ayala who would later play in France. But if the player’s rush of blood to the fist was a concern it was not nearly as consequential as Solich’s uncharacteristic lack of detail. The meticulous coach had made three substitutions when he decided to bring on Alejandro Arce, the referee allowed the substitution despite the maximum permitted being only three changes. The game finished 2-2 but CONMEBOL awarded the points to the Peruvians after intense discussions and arguments from both sides.
A draw in their next game against World Champions Uruguay, also 2-2, meant Paraguay were all but out of the tournament. In those days it was a round robin with the top two facing each other in a playoff for the trophy if they finished level on points. Peru or Brazil were almost certain to take the crown even after Paraguay predictably beat a poor Bolivian side 2-1. The albirroja’s last game on 27 March was against group leaders Brazil and only a win would do.
The last time they met in the Copa América was in 1949 in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil won 7-0. This time Paraguay kept organised and ran themselves into the ground against their illustrious opponents who had finished runners up at the last World Cup. With five minutes left on the clock it was 1-1, Solich looked at his bench. He had already bought on his impact sub Luis Lacasa who had made no impression, his favoured sub Milner Ayala was out of favour for that “trompada” so the attacking options were limited. Then he looked over to his “aguatero” (waterboy) who had diligently performed his duties on the sideline and called over the Guaraní winger. “Eike ha egana chéve ko partido” he said in the native language Guaraní , it means “Get on the pitch and win the game”. Pedro León entered the field of play and never one to let his coach down did exactly what Solich had told him. A minute before time the debutant scored the winning goal against Brazil with his first touches of the ball.
Over 114 matches in their 34-year history the Paraguayan national team had never recorded such an important victory on such a grand stage. It was all thanks to Pedro León, who would never get more than those 5 minutes in a Paraguay shirt, but 5 minutes was enough for him to go down in footballing folklore.
Despite the incredible result it only put Paraguay level on points with Brazil and hosts Peru were just one point behind and expected to win against Uruguay who had nothing to play. Solich himself was so convinced of a Peruvian triumph that he only heard of Uruguay’s brave win in Buenos Aires, it is said he was there looking for a new contract with a local club, his stock boosted by that win against Brazil. Incredibly he arrived just minutes before the kick-off of the biggest game in his country’s history, the playoff game against Brazil.
While Pedro León had his moment in the last game it was Manuel Gavilán who was to make his mark in the playoff final. The central defender scored a 40-yard screamer to put Paraguay 2-0 up after Atilio Lopez had opened the scoring. It was Gavilán’s only goal at international level and undoubtedly the best goal he ever scored in his career. By the time Rubén Fernández had made it three, people were celebrating on the streets of Asunción as the game was transmitted live by . When Brazilian substitute Ipojucán scored twice in the second half you wondered if the partying was premature. But the fairytale was not going to end for the brave Paraguayan team – they hung on and hung on to record their second victory over Brazil in a matter of weeks, before the tournament they’d only beaten their renowned rivals twice in their history.
Paraguay, the nation of just 6 million who were too small and underdeveloped to host the tournament themselves had conquered all before them. They were champions of South America and now, whether they wanted to or not, Brazil had to finally come and visit them in Asunción. A qualifier for the 1954 World Cup. As for Fleitas Solich he got his move out of Paraguay, to Flamengo and by the end of the decade he was in charge of none other than Real Madrid. As for Pedro León, the waterboy of Lima, I couldn’t find any mention of him post-1953 but personally I think that makes his 5 minutes of fame even more special.
Ralph Hannah is a freelance football writer principally covering Paraguayan football but dips into all things South American. To hear his thoughts on Paraguay at this year’s Copa America listen to the Paraguay Hand of Pod special. If you know what became of Pedro León tell him on Twitter.