All together now, it's Chiqui time...
On Friday morning, Gerardo Martino finally announced the expected, his stepping down from his post as Paraguay’s head coach. His later morning press conference was somewhat overshadowed by goings-on in Twitter-land as the president of the APF (Paraguay FA), Juan Angel Napout tweeted at 10:30am that he wished Tata Martino all the best. 15 minutes later with Martino not officially gone (but the cat very much out the bag) he tweeted again “The new manager will be Paraguayan”. Anybody following Paraguayan football knew exactly who he meant; the new Paraguay manager was Chiqui Arce. My Twitter feed became home to several fierce debates. Was this the same free kick taking right back that made headlines for his name at the 2002 World Cup? Was this the best name ever? Was Chiqui Arce even a real name or just a big joke?
Chiqui Arce is a name (although christened Francisco, his nickname Chiqui replaced that long ago), it is a great name for us English speakers and he is the former Paraguay and Palmeiras right back who was deadly from set pieces. But Chiqui Arce is much more than just a name in Paraguayan football – for the last four years he has been coach of Rubio Ñu located in the quiet Asuncion suburb, Santisima Trinidad. There he has revolutionized the club’s fortunes, enough to convince the APF to turn their backs on the very successful policy of hiring foreign managers (the last four managers at World Cups have been Brazilian, Italian, Uruguayan and Argentinian). If he can repeat his Rubio Ñu success with the albirroja, Chiqui Arce could become the first Paraguayan to take his country to a World Cup since Cayetano Ré in 1986.
At the time of Arce’s appointment Rubio Ñu were in the second tier of Paraguayan football, not unfamiliar territory, since 1926 they have flitted between the divisions and as recently as 2005 they were in the third tier. Arce was joined by his former teammate and fellow member of Paraguay’s ‘golden generation’, Carlos Gamarra who is currently a director at the club and with Arce is part of the consortium running Rubio Ñu. Together the pair have rejuvenated the club with a combination of positive football on the pitch and canny management off it.
Having finished third for the second consecutive season in 2007, Rubio Ñu finally got themselves out of the Division Intermedia in Arce’s second season in charge. In October 2008 they won the league title after a 0-0 draw on a sodden pitch against Sportivo Iteño. An estimated 4.000 fans crammed into the La Arboleda stadium despite just 2.963 people buying tickets – it was understandable, those fans had waited 29 years to see Rubio Ñu back in the first division.
There was no doubt that life in the Paraguayan top flight was going to be a tough challenge for the newcomers and in the 2009 Apertura, Rubio Ñu battled to a respectable 8th out of 12th teams. The statistical evidence from that season gives an insight into Arce’s philosophy on the pitch and Gamarra’s dealings off it. With 30 goals in 22 games they were fourth highest scorers (even outscoring champions Cerro Porteño) always looking to attack even when it brought results like the 5-3 defeat to Olimpia. The key figure was lanky striker Pablo Velasquez – then aged 22 - who finished top scorer in the Apertura with 16 goals. Pablo Velasquez was on loan from one of the Paraguayan top 4, Libertad, as the clubs formed an agreement with Rubio Ñu blooding Libertad’s young prospects in the Paraguayan top division rather than playing in Paraguay’s youth or reserve leagues. It seems very similar to the Udinese/Granada partnership recently featured here on IBWM. http://inbedwithmaradona.com/journal/2011/6/28/granadas-italian-job.html
Rubio Ñu went from strength to strength, coming 4th in the 2009 Clausura before 5th and 6th place finishes in 2010. The 2011 Apertura saw Chiqui Arce guide Rubio Ñu to another 5th place finish playing some excellent counter attacking football. They were second top scorers with 35 goals, outscoring champions Nacional and young Robin Ramirez was second top scorer. This season Ramirez will line up for his parent club, you guessed it, Libertad. Another top performer for the club over the past two years was veteran Roberto ‘Toro’ Acuña. The former Boca Juniors and Deportivo La Coruña midfielder had retired in 2007 before, Arce and Gamarra, his former Paraguay teammates coaxed him to play for their side in 2009. It was an inspired decision with ‘Toro’ bringing stability and goals to the side. On reaching 100 international caps in June the midfielder was quick to thank “my former teammate in the Paraguay team Francisco ‘Chiqui’ Arce…for giving me the chance to keep playing in the top division this season”.
There is no doubt that managing the World Cup Quarter Finalists and Copa America runners-up is going to be a much tougher prospect but Chiqui Arce has brought in an excellent backroom team. Experienced goalkeeper Aldo Bobadilla will be in charge of training South America’s best goalkeeper Justo Villar and the string of young players looking to emulate him. The first of his assistants is Blas Cristaldo, who made a handful of appearances for Paraguay in the 1990s, and more recently has been coaching the reserves at leading club Cerro Porteño and was their interim coach for a brief period this year. The other is Osvaldo Cohener a former striker who played with Arce at Libertad in the twilight of both players’ careers.
Chiqui Arce has a three-game honeymoon period before the serious business of attempting to qualify for Paraguay’s fifth straight World Cup begins. Tomorrow he names his first squad for the Salvador Cabañas testimonial match against America of Mexico and he will be back in Central America in September to play Honduras three days after taking on Jamaica in Kingston. On 7th October Chiqui Arce will lead Paraguay to Lima to play Peru where he suffered three defeats as a player. If, as a manager, he can become the first Paraguay manager to win a World Cup Qualifier in Peru then people in England might be talking about more than just his name.
Ralph is a freelance football writer based in Asuncion. You can find him on Twitter @paraguayralph.