I write this just days after Paraguay not only conceded to Venezuela at home for the first time in a World Cup Qualifier but suffered the ignominy of losing to the former whipping boys of South American football. At present Paraguay sit bottom of the CONMEBOL qualifying table level on points with Bolivia but holding a worse goal difference. It seems that for the first time since 1994 the albirroja won’t be present at the World Cup, the Paraguayan miracle looks to be over.
Miracle is no exaggeration for a country of just six million inhabitants and boasting the second highest level of poverty in South America (behind Bolivia) that has managed to reach the last four World Cups and the knockout stages of three of those tournaments (2006 the odd one out). In the 2010 qualification campaign they even finished ahead of Argentina full to the brim with incredible talent – Messi, Aguero, Tevez, Mascherano, Higuain to name but a few. Not bad for a team made up of players from Europe’s second divisions, South American leagues and local clubs such as Libertad and Cerro Porteño.
There are many factors that aided the Paraguayan revival from a battling side with the occasional success (between 1950 and 1994 they qualified for just two World Cups but did win two Copa America trophies) to one of the top eight sides in the world being knocked out by the eventual winners. Investment in youth and a golden generation are the start, but by South Africa 2010 the squad is totally different to the side that began qualifying for France in 1996. A more important factor is cultural identity mixed with the evolving culture of international football coupled with the change in format of the qualification system which has been crucial in the development of the smaller South American teams.
We’ll kick off with the latter point; before 1998 South American World Cup qualification was almost a nuisance for CONMEBOL and the two sides that always qualified, Argentina and Brazil. They would usually divide the continent into two or three groups with the major powers separated and try and get the whole thing done in a month or so as not to take up too much time. Since the new system in 1998 the number of countries who have qualified for the four World Cups is seven out of the ten (Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia missing out). It is widely agreed that this system has helped the less fashionable sides improve by playing constant competitive football over three years rather than scratching around for friendlies. There is no doubt that the qualification has got more competitive, in 1998 the average points won by the top five teams was 27.4 to 15.5 won by the bottom sides, in 2010 it was 30.4 to 19.2 a marked improvement by the ‘smaller’ teams. This undoubtedly helped Paraguay improve as they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get major teams to play in hot and humid Asunción in front of just 20,000 people. A major European side has never visited and with the association not blessed with the financial clout or historical pull of their neighbours they didn’t manage to play many major teams in friendlies during the twentieth century.
Maybe there was some luck involved with the timing of the change of format because 1998 happened to coincide with a real golden generation led by the exuberant José Luis Chilavert and built on solid foundations with players like Chiqui Arce, Celso Ayala and Inter Milan central defender Carlos Gamarra. They had already played the 1994 qualifiers together and that wasn’t even their first competitive tournament having all been part of the side that qualified for the 1992 Olympic Games under the stewardship of Uruguayan coach Sergio Markarian. While this crop of players, like the Paraguayan sides after them, were built on a strong defence they also counted on Jose ‘Pepe’ Cardozo up front and the exciting teenager Roque Santa Cruz who had been snapped up by German giants Bayern Munich. The incredible part about the Paraguay story was that by 2006 most of this team had gone and when they recorded their best ever finish in 2010 there was nobody from this golden generation. So while there is no doubt the legends mentioned above gave Paraguay the foundation they needed, the question that needs answering is, how did the albirroja manage to get through the dreaded ‘transition’ phase and improve?
A key point here is the style of play used by Paraguay, throughout history they have been something of a defensive and battling team renowned for their ‘garra’ (guts) as they realize they can’t compete with the offensive and flowing styles of their two neighbours Brazil and Argentina. Over the decades international football, and arguably football in general, has become more defensive with tactical innovation and the professionalization of the game across the globe. An interesting stat relating to the World Cups is to look at the winning side’s goals per game since its inception in 1930. Between 1930-54 for example the World Cup winner scored on average 3.48 goals per game with only Italy in 1938 not scoring above 3.5 goals per game. From 1958-1990 when Paraguay reached just one World Cup the football was less attacking but a World Cup winner still scored on average 2.2 goals per game, Brazil 1970 of course the highest scorers. But since 1994 we have seen the game get much tighter, just 1.7 goals per game by the World Cup winners and the defensive trend is of course epitomized by Spain who needed just seven goals in seven games to win in 2010. With teams scoring less and counter-attacking football now the norm it meant the albirroja were suddenly in keeping with the tide and there were a whole host of coaches that could be effective with a well-organised defensive side. Anibal Ruiz was quite negative and counter-attacking but he got Paraguay to Germany with a goal difference of 0 over the 18 games.
There was a glimpse of hope with Gerardo Martino, a Bielsista, who wanted Paraguay to press hard from the front and overrun teams. While he had Salvador Cabañas it worked, but once the star forward was involved in the tragic shooting they had to change tack. He went to the ‘default setting’ for the landlocked country and as they scraped through the final qualifiers with some ‘Guaraní garra’ and in South Africa the now experienced group (with an average age of 29.6 years) were able to progress more thanks to their experience and organization, not their flair. One journalist called the World Cup the beginning of the ‘Guarani Apocalypse’ as another generation was coming to an end.
Sadly, he seems to be right as Paraguay look set to miss out on a World Cup for the first time since 1994 the only CONMEBOL side other than Argentina and Brazil to have qualified for at least the last four. They haven’t been able to get through this transition unscathed as the now ageing defence struggle to stop the likes of Guerrero, Messi and most recently Rondón. The miracle is over for now, but in January 2013 the U-20s side begin qualification for next year’s World Cup with players set to be called up from Benfica and Barcelona a new miracle might be on the horizon.
Ralph can be found on Twitter @ParaguayRalph.