Qualifying for four consecutive FIFA World Cups is something to be proud of, no matter what continent you come from. Taking out of consideration the powerhouses around the world, there are very few countries with a history deemed inferior to those previously mentioned that would maintain the same level of consistency during the period of each of the finals.
In South America, the qualification for the 32-team competition is considered to be the hardest process out of any of continents, as 10 nations fight for four automatic spots to the World Cup, while the fifth place placed team will have to endure an intercontinental playoff.
From 1998 until 2010, there have been three nations that have qualified for four straight FIFA World Cups from CONMEBOL, the governing body of South American football. Those three include five-time winners Brazil and two-time winners Argentina. While both are powerhouses not only on a continental but a worldwide basis, many people forget the final member of that trio: Paraguay.
It’s a nation that first came to the world’s attention in France in 1998, where Paraguay qualified for the first time in 12 years. They earned the respect of the world under the captaincy of the charismatic goalkeeper and captain Jose Luis Chilavert (who alongside
Fabian Barthez was named in the official team of the tournament). He led La Albirroja into the Round of 16 alongside African giants Nigeria and above European giants Spain and familiar opponents in Bulgaria.
In the Round of 16, the eventual champions and hosts knocked out La Albirroja ever scoring the first ever Golden Goal at a World Cup from Laurent Blanc. Four years later, Paraguay also qualified for the Round of 16 in South Korea and Japan, only to lose to
eventual runners-up Germany via a last minute goal from Oliver Neuville. In 2006, Los Guaranies were knocked out in the group stages at expense of England, Sweden and Trinidad and Tobago. Coach Anibal Ruiz was sacked the Paraguayan FA and so came in
Gerardo “Tata” Martino to replace the Uruguayan in what would be the start of the greatest period in the history of the South American nation.
EL TATA ARRIVES
Martino, just like Ruiz did in the past had tremendous experience in Paraguayan football where the Argentine would arrive in 2002 managing Club Libertad, considered by many as the fourth most popular club in the entire nation, where his arrival was also influenced by then president and chairman of the club (and future president of nation) Horacio Cartes, who would have a continued friendship for years to come. During his two stints between 2002 to 2003 and 2005 to 2006, he was able to achieve three league titles with
Los Gumarelos, during which he also moved to Cerro Porteño, quite possibly the second most successful club in Paraguayan club football, behind Olimpia, where he also achieved a league titles in 2004 before returning to Argentina to manage Colon de Santa
Fe and after a short spell in his native country, he returned to his adopted country to take charge of the national team, where the influence given was again given by not only Cartes but it was the first order of business made by new Paraguayan FA president Juan Angel Napout, who eventually became the President of CONMEBOL and became part of the FIFAGate scandal that saw him extradited to the United States where he was eventually found guilty of racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy.
Regardless of the crony capitalism that would happen nearly a decade after the appointment of Martino, it was Cartes who was also apart of the APF as a director of the national teams during the Napout era, the important relationship he had allowed the
Argentine was so fundamental to get him to join the national team, it’s been said that he was able to join as Cartes offered Martino total control of the national team and the way he wanted to handle it.
“There was total trust,” said Paraguayan football expert Ralph Hannah. “I don’t think he even had a contract on paper, so you can see that Cartes had found the right man.”
However, it didn’t begin easy for the Argentine. The first major test would be the following year’s Copa America taking place in Venezuela. Pitted in a group with Colombia, the United States and Argentina, Martino’s men trashed Los Cafeteros 5-0,
with a hat trick by national team legend and eventual top goalscorer Roque Santa Cruz and defeated the Stars and Stripes 3-1 to secure themselves into qualification to the quarterfinals. However, a 1-0 defeat to Argentina meant they had to play Mexico in
Maturín where they would get trashed 6-0, giving “El Tata” increased pressure heading into qualification for South Africa. While the continent’s biggest tournament isn’t exactly a measuring point for the FIFA World Cup, it has still nevertheless provides some sort of confidence and motivation to the marathon process for all 10 nations of CONMEBOL.
FOUR STRAIGHT WORLD CUPS
Nevertheless, Paraguay’s foundering in Venezuela would only work for them. In their first five matches, they went perfect with four wins and a draw against Peru, Uruguay, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil respectively to see them top of the table and being the only
national team in the continent up until that point to not lose to that point, made the Estadio Defensores del Chaco a hotbed for the home side to pick up memorable wins over the respective countries. Regardless of the fine start, the momentum didn’t last long.
Losing to Bolivia in La Paz broke their perfect record and then losses to Uruguay away and Chile at home gave a bit of fears regarding their positions on the table. Nevertheless, the bad form given by new manager Diego Maradona and Argentina set up a showdown in September of 2009 against their rivals of the south in Asuncion where a win against the Albiceleste would secure qualification for the following summer. Under a packed crowd at the Estadio Defensores del Chaco, Paraguay were looking to extend their unbeaten World Cup qualifying streak against their southern neighbors, where they haven’t lost to the Albiceleste in nine years. In the 39th minute, Salvador Cabañas was able to beat three defenders before giving a through pass and pick out
Nelson Haedo Valdez on the left side of the box and bury his shot past goalkeeper Sergio Romero to score the first and only goal of the match as La Albirroja defeated Argentina and qualified for the fourth straight time to a FIFA World Cup. The then-President Fernando Lugo declared a national holiday the following day as the joy of six million people bursted into the streets on Asuncion and across the nation to achieve something at the time that only Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, all of which were former champions by being the only nations in the continent to qualify for at least four straight World Cups.
The game in Asuncion was something of a masterclass by Martino’s men. As a fundamental and pragmatic manager from the school of Marcelo Bielsa, his former coach whilst he was a player at Newells Old Boys, Martino was inspired by the Bielsa high pressing and used that in a systematic 4-4-2 formation which allowed players like Cabañas to be key in that system because he was a creator, and could find space to either make or score goals which he did for the only goal scored by his teammate Valdez against Argentina.
CHANGE ON AND OFF THE PITCH
Politically, just like a sense of change and rebirth was proven on the pitch, off it was even more significant. Just a year before, opposition candidate Fernando Lugo of the Patriotic Alliance for Change defeated Blanca Ovelar of the long-ruling right-wing Colorado Party to become the new President of the nation, ending a streak of 60 years of control from the party that oversaw the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship that lasted 35 years. It was a breath of fresh air for change happening within the government of the nation and allowed people hope that it meant great things were happening because of a new president with fresh ideas and with Lugo being a former Roman Catholic priest and bishop prior into entering politics, allowed them to be connected to someone that is familiar with something that is important and a part of Paraguayan society, especially on the more work-class and conservative aspect, religion.
Divine intervention or not, Paraguay would finish World Cup qualifying in third with 33 points (only below Chile on goal difference despite being level on points) that oversaw 10 wins and became the first team ever in the current World Cup qualifying process in CONMEBOL to beat all nine other teams in the continent at least once, a record that has since been leveled by Brazil for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The South Americans were drawn into Group F in December 2009 for the World Cup with reigning world champions Italy, surprise package Slovakia and minnows New Zealand in which Martino did not view the group as easy as what their European
compatriots might believe, but were still willing to battle it out to not only qualify for the knockout stage but to win the group. Heading into the New Year and with six months before the big tilt in South Africa, many Paraguayans were starting to wonder how they’d be able to put 23 names on a team that has generally kept the core during the entire Martino era throughout qualifying. The strength of the squad was in the attack with players such as Roque Santa Cruz, who served with European experience working his trade in Bayern Munich at the start of his career before heading to England to play for Blackburn Rovers and at the time, Manchester City. You had Oscar Cardozo, who was the top goalscorer in Benfica and the entire Portuguese league for various seasons. You had Nelson Haedo Valdez who exiled in German football and became a vocal player on the national team and finally, you had Salvador Cabañas.
“El Chava” as he was nicknamed in his homeland was a key player in Mexico’s Club America earning idol status as top goalscorer in Liga MX and helping them to various titles and memorable performances during his stint at the Estadio Azteca. He was Los
Aguilas and Paraguay’s number 10 heading into the World Cup, a player blessed with an array of skills on the pitch such as excellent heading, ambidextrous accurate shooting and a combination of technique, power and positional sense. He was surely the player to watch on this team and one of the players to watch during the month-long tournament.
Then, it all came crashing down.
ESCTASY TO AGONY
On the night of January 25, Cabañas and his wife entered the Mexico City nightclub “Bar Bar” and Cabañas was shot in the head. According to the official police reports, the assault was the result of a taunting incident in the bar’s bathroom between Cabañas and a mobster of the Beltrán-Leyva Drug-Cartel called José Balderas Garza, alias “JJ,” who shot him. Paraguay and Club America fans went into mourning and just like the end seemed to be near for many fans in the two nations, Cabañas miraculously survived.
Later on that fateful day, he was submitted to a craniotomy but doctors decided that it was too risky to proceed and the bullet was not removed, to which it is still there to this day, that has affected Cabañas’ thinking as well as his vision that virtually ended his
career, despite a few comeback stints in Brazil and Paraguay. Cabañas’ survival might be have been a sigh of relief initially to those thinking he would be fit in time for the World Cup in six months time, but Martino and the Paraguayan FA decided to not to risk it. Instead, he was left out of the final 23-man squad and the big question was who to replace such an important player at a critical time like this? Enter Lucas Barrios.
Barrios, at the time was an Argentine playing at Borussia Dortmund but just like various footballers who perhaps didn’t get the opportunity to play for their native national team, opted to play for the national team of their family, and Barrios was able to do that thanks to his Paraguayan mother in which he was able to start his dual citizenship process and eventually was wooed by Tata Martino to play for the national team in South Africa. Barrios also joined fellow naturalized Argentine-Paraguayans Nestor Ortigoza and Jonathan Santana to be apart of the final list.
RAINBOW NATION EUPHORIA
The first match occurred in Cape Town on June 14 against the reigning world champions, Italy. The Azzurri had eight players of the 23-man squad that became champions for the fourth time four years ago and with players such as Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and captain Fabio Cannavaro, Marcelo Lippi’s men were expected to retain their title and equal Brazil as the most successful country to ever win the FIFA World Cup. The match started for La Albirroja with Justo Villar in goal as the skipper of the team and with a four-man backline of Carlos Bonet, Antolín Alcaraz, Paulo da Silva and Claudio Morel Rodriguez respectively. Victor Caceres served as the defensive midfielder with Cristian Riveros playing center of the pitch with Aureliano Torres and Enrique Vera on the flanks and finally you had Nelson Valdez playing directly behind Lucas Barrios as the center forward.
In the 39th minute, Giorgio Chiellini fouled Valdez roughly 30 yards outside the box for a free kick. As customary as Paraguay has always been for their defensive resistance, they have also been well known to be deadly on their set pieces. Paraguay proved that
when Torres curled in a wicked free-kick from the right giving Alcaraz the chance to leap into the air and beat Cannavaro and De Rossi to power home his header into the corner of the net and Los Guaranies a shock lead over the world champions. The match would end 1-1 thanks to a goalkeeping mistake by Villar from a Simone Pepe corner by jumping way to early and failing to connect with his punch allowing De Rossi to pounce and score from a close-range volley. A draw that may have been the beginning of the end for Italy but certainly was a result that Paraguay could take in their first game, especially giving the hype and importance they needed. Martino later pointed out that while Lippi viewed their South American rivals as “trying to defend for almost the whole match,” “El Tata” responded by saying that “Our collective performance was good and it gives us great confidence going forward.”
Six days later, Paraguay traveled to Bloemfontein to take on Slovakia, who had, surprisedly, also drawn their first game against New Zealand thanks to a last second Winston Reid equalizer meaning that, with Italy-New Zealand also becoming of importance, the winner between the South Americans and Europeans could put themselves in pole position to advance out of the group with four points after two matches. Paraguay would do be victor in this case thanks to a 2-0 victory from goals by Vera and Riveros.
The first goal would come in the 27th minute following a defensive giveaways by the Slovaks in which Barrios pick the ball up from the left and play a through-ball towards Vera with a one-time finish past Ján Mucha. The second goal would come from another set piece as Torres again played a ball into the box allowing Da Silva to head towards goal, but with another Slovakian defensive mistake, the then-Sunderland defender picked the ball up again and played towards his teammate for both club and country to drill one past the Slovakian goalkeeper and preserve three important points that only became much more sweet when Italy gave one of the biggest shocks at this World Cup by drawing New Zealand 1-1, meaning that Paraguay head into the final match-day top of the group and could preserve that with a win or draw against New Zealand assuming that Italy don’t beat Slovakia.
Four days later, Paraguay would end up giving a scoreless and unentertaining draw to New Zealand in Polokwane, but thanks to Slovakia’s 3-2 win over Italy during the same time, La Albirroja would win their group with five points for the first time ever in the World Cup, qualify for the Round of 16 alongside Slovakia and knock Italy out of the World Cup, becoming the first defending champion to do so in the group stages since France in 2002. Slovakia would take on the eventual finalists Netherlands and lose 3-1 in the next stage but Paraguay took on Japan in Pretoria in what ended up being the famous day in Paraguayan sporting history.
JUNE 29, 2010
A cool evening in the northern part of South Africa as The Samurai Blue were Paraguay’s fourth ever opponent in a World Cup Round of 16 but only this time, La Albiroja want to go one further than previous encounters when they were knocked out by England, France and Germany in 1986, 1998 and 2002 respectively. Both the countries heading into the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria with one goal in their mind, to head to the quarterfinals for the first time in their history. The match however, was not one to remember.
Both teams were able to adopt a solid defensive posture throughout 120 minutes with minimal chances onto goal. The match ended up going to penalties. With the score being 3-2 to the Paraguayans, Yuichi Komano took Japan’s third penalty of the night and the Júbilo Iwata fullback skied his shot over the Villar’s woodwork and missed the vital penalty in the shootout. Benfica’s Oscar Cardozo took the decisive fifth and final kick and after a slow run up, was able to roll the ball in to the right of Eiji Kawashima’s goal and secure a ticket to the quarter-finals for the first time ever, sending joy to all 23 players on the squad, to an emotional Martino and his coach staff, to the U20 and sparing squad that traveled to South Africa, to the various Paraguayan supporters in Pretoria that night and to the millions of Paraguayans in their native country and around the world that were able to celebrate this historic feat that only this generation of players were able to accomplish.
Scenes across the cities of Asuncion, Ciudad del Este and many others around the country with six million people has seen celebrations that have never been before seen, even comparable to other famous wins in the history of Paraguayan football such as Club Olimpia winning their three Copa Libertadores in 1979, 1990 and 2002 or the national team winning the Copa America in 1953 and 1979, what occurred on that Tuesday became just an emotional rollercoaster throughout the entire day that has not been seen ever since.
However, there was still business to be done. Their next opponent was the top favorites to win this World Cup and current European champions, Spain. Known to be the underachievers in every World Cup, Vicente del Bosque’s men were now three matches away from achieving their most glorious chapter ever and after disposing their Iberian neighbors Portugal in the Round of 16, they knew that the match against the Paraguayans would not be a pushover.
Four days from their historic victory over Japan, Paraguay traveled to Johannesburg to take on their mother country, to secure entry to the semi-finals where they would meet Germany, who earlier that day, deposed of Argentina by four goals to none in Cape Town. Martino’s men was able to play with Cardozo and Valdez as the two forwards while putting Edgar Barreto alongside Jonathan Santana in the midfield in an effort to maintain and keep Spain’s attacking power at bay. The first half of the match finished goalless, although both sides had chances to score, such as Valdez having a goal ruled out as offside.
That would be all deemed irrelevant in the second half where in a span of four minutes, one of the weirdest events in World Cup history would ever occur. In the 57th minute, Gerard Piqué pulled down Cardozo in Spain’s penalty area and Paraguay was awarded a penalty by the Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres. “Tacuara”, as he’s nicknamed (meaning big cane in Guarani, the native language of the South Americans) took the penalty himself but Spain’s goalkeeper Iker Casillas saved it. Spain soon after launched a counterattack at the other end of the pitch, in which David Villa was brought down by Alcaraz, allowing Batres to award a penalty to the Europeans. Xabi Alonso stepped up to take the penalty kick and seemed to have scored, only for the referee to order the Spanish player to go back into the penalty area and retake it because of encroachment before the kick was taken. Villar saved Alonso’s retake in a series of events that would see three penalty kicks in a span of three minutes.
Nevertheless, as the game was looking to head into extra time yet again for the Paraguayans, Spain broke the deadlock seven minutes from time, where Villa collected a rebounded shot off the post from Pedro after a great pass and breakthrough from Andres Iniesta past multiple Paraguayan defenders, to allow “El Guaje” to score off the post. The dream was over. Spain qualified for the semifinals and eventually ended up lifting their maiden World Cup against the Netherlands and the Paraguayans left South Africa finishing eighth overall, scoring three goals and conceding two in five matches and have made an entire nation proud of its players and the coaching staff.
The national team and its staff would arrive at back at Asuncion’s Silvio Pettirossi International Airport in the middle of the night were they would receive a hero’s welcome from a multitude of fans and received by President Lugo alongside his vice president, Federico Franco. There was a ceremony in which the head of state also awarded medals of honors for their service in South Africa to every one of the 23 players and of Martino’s staff, in which the Argentine got emotional and “thanked the nation for allowing me to become the head coach of its national team and for it to be the biggest pride of my coaching career.” Even Oscar Cardozo, who would later become a subject of mixed debate in later years despite scoring Paraguay’s most important goal in its sporting
history and missing what would have been a more important goal, was given a reception unlike any other player and became a hero just like the rest of them.
The impact was enough. Culturally, the country viewed the players as heroes in Paraguayan sporting heroes among the greatest players of all time and certainly in Paraguayan culture with those who gained independence in 1811 and fought various wars during the country’s bicentenary that would occur the following year in 2011. As for Martino, his cult status was secure and would forever be part of Paraguayan footballing history because of being a manager that was able to maintain a togetherness of a team
that was tactically disciplined as well as using their customary Paraguayan fight-till-the-end spirit that made them enchanted by fans and feared by their rivals around the world.
THE INFLUENCE OF A NEW GENERATION
The influence and time that Martino would have in those five years in charge of the national team, who managed the team until the end of the 2011 Copa America, where La Albirroja finished as runners-up, losing in the final in 2011, was huge. Despite failures of now missing two straight World Cups in 2014 and 2018, a generation of those players on the current national team was heavily influenced by the events between the months of June and July of 2010.
Martino would eventually head back to Argentina to coach his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario before managing stints at FC Barcelona and the Argentina national team, where they finished as runner-ups of the Copa America in 2015 and 2016 before landing his most recent job in the United States, managing the newly expanded Major League Soccer team, Atlanta United where Martino was able to influence a certain Paraguayan to join the team in its debut season.
That would be the case of the-then Lanus midfielder Miguel Almiron, who was playing in Cerro Porteño’s academy at the age of 16 during the World Cup and had fond memories of that whole campaign and the match against Spain
I watched our final match with almost everyone I knew,” said Almiron in an interview for The Player’s Tribune.“One of my friends looked around the room and said, “Man, imagine if Tata was coaching us some day? How cool would that be?” Seven years later, his dream would come true. “When Tata called me, and told me about the proposal and the things they were doing here, I didn’t hesitate to say yes to him,” says Almirón. “Because he’s an idol in Paraguay, for my family too, and it’s a great honor to have him as a coach.”
The call became important as the Paraguayan became one of the most important players for the newly expanded team but also one of the best players in the league and its all thanks to the influence that Martino was able to give.
“He influenced a lot for me to join this club because I was able to learn a lot from him and I think myself and my teammates will and have learned a lot from him, but above all, he’s a wonderful person to be around,” said Almiron.
Almiron, just like a lot of his compatriots around the world are ready to be the shining light of a new generation of players such as Oscar and Angel Romero, Gustavo Gomez, Antonio Sanabria and Derlis Gonzalez among other players to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in what will be a tough campaign to do it in, but let’s not forget that the influence that players like Villar, Santa Cruz, Valdez, Da Silva, Cardozo and many others would have on these players to serve as motivation to not only achieve similar feats like the golden generation of the past did but but to surpass them and create their own history.
Nearly a decade on from the amazing achievements in South Africa, this team as well as Martino will forever be remembered for not only sending a statement to the rest of the world that a little country can achieve something like this, but like Martino, became an influence for other Argentine managers to secure qualification to a future World Cup like Jose Pekerman for Colombia, Jorge Sampaoli for Chile and Ricardo Gareca of Peru. The entire country of Paraguay will forever be grateful for the hard work and determination made by these 23 warriors that will forever be in the hearts of Paraguayans around the world.
By: Roberto Rojas
Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images Europe