29 June 2015

This week in the Copa America Paraguay surprisingly eliminated Brazil on penalties after a draw in the quarter-final. They did exactly the same thing in the previous Copa America in 2011.

A decade ago I read in World Soccer magazine the sentiment: ‘They say that a Paraguayan can be beaten by a better man, but never by a braver one.’

This can be applied well in this 2015 Copa America tournament in which, against the three marquee South American countries of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, Paraguay have come back from deficits three times to force draws and fight their way into the semi-finals.

Paraguay is a small, mainly rural country with a population of under seven million people. In Simon Kuper’s book Soccernomics, he discusses the advantage for countries with higher populations and wealth to succeed in international football. In this, Paraguay and Uruguay are at a disadvantage to nations like Peru, Colombia and Argentina, who all boast figures of 30 million plus; to say nothing of the behemoth that is the multifaceted world of Brazil.

This is going off mere football matters and will open me up to all sorts of criticism, but perhaps what saves Paraguay is the quality of their people.

Paraguayans have been described as straightforward, friendly, low-key and positively impassive in the face of difficulty. Tim Vickery, the doyen of English-language journalists on South American football, cannot get enough of a story about Paraguay’s team at the 1995 Copa America, who were locked out of a training ground in Montevideo. They simply threw down some coats as goalposts and practiced on the street.

After long decades of only intermittently appearing, Paraguay only became a fixture on the world scene beginning the following year, when with a brash, bullying, exceptional goalkeeper named Jose Luis Chilavert, they qualified for the 1998 World Cup based purely on locking the door defensively and religiously winning narrowly at home in Asuncion. This took them all the way to the Second Round of France ’98, where they held on for 114 minutes against a French team that would sweep the title two weeks later.

Paraguay would also qualify for the next three world cups, proving that Chilavert hadn’t been the be-all and end-all. Their style would always be based on a resolute backline and battling qualities. After the old guard of the Carlos Gamarra era went off to play in the defensive line in the sky, it appeared in 2007 that Paraguay would press on with a new generation featuring gifted attacking midfielder Salvador Cabañas.

To get a glimpse of his skill, check the goal with which Paraguay defeated Argentina 1-0 in World Cup qualification in 2009. Cabañas is the player that spins to guard the ball from three surrounding Argentines, and then plays a one-two before setting Valdez through on goal. It was a brilliant sequence of moves.

In January 2010 a man fired a bullet into Cabañas’ head in a bar in Mexico where he played his club football. Fighting for life, he lived but never substantially played football again.

Paraguay achieved superficially successful results in the 2010 World Cup (quarter-finals) and 2011 Copa America (beaten finalists) but the attacking aspect of their game was gone with Cabañas.

Their most famous set of results occurred in qualifying for the final of the 2011 Copa America without winning a single match. After three group stage draws, they clung on desperately in matches against Brazil and Cinderella team Venezuela, securing exhausting 0-0 draws (something of a Paraguayan specialty) and in the relaxed way that sums up the characteristics of their people, won two penalty shootouts to limp into the final, injuries, suspensions and all.

It was their third win in a penalty shootout within a year, after defeating Japan at World Cup 2010. Now they have a fourth shootout win after defeating Brazil 4-3 on penalties at the 2015 Copa America.

Tim Vickery, summing up the 2011 tournament, said, “It’s all well and good to make it to the final after not winning a game, but you need wins to qualify for a World Cup.” He was proven correct when Paraguay plummeted to finish last in South American qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, this one tragically right next door in Brazil, their talent pool seemingly finished.

One phenomenon that has affected Paraguay this decade, both positively and negatively, is the use of Argentines with Paraguayan mothers. Paraguay is a very poor country that shares a border with Argentina, a comparatively prosperous one. Many Paraguayans have rolled the dice over the years and crossed into Argentina for the promise of a better life. The Argentinian military junta also sent them back by the truckload in order to keep up appearances in the months before the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

In Argentina, Paraguayan immigrants face the usual haughty prejudices that more affluent people the world over display towards poorer immigrant communities. They also, however, marry and produce new Argentine-Paraguayans.

The most famous of these is forward Lucas Barrios, who grew up Argentine but due to Argentinian regulations had to renounce his citizenship in order to play for Paraguay at the 2010 World Cup, his mother’s country.

In the first match of this Copa America competition, Paraguay began in the listless way they had played their World Cup qualifying matches from 2011-13. Argentina strolled to a 2-0 lead, but Paraguay against all odds climbed off the canvas to storm the Argentinian defence in the last half hour in their way, sending in long balls, contesting the headers, competing in midfield and generally being a thorn.

In the last minute Paraguay scored to rescue a 2-2 draw. The scorer of the last-minute goal? Proud ex-Argentine Paraguayan Lucas Barrios.

Paraguay did the same in their quarter-final against Brazil. They trailed for 57 minutes, but chipped away until achieving parity. 21-year-old Derlis Gonzalez, one of the youngest players in a group of veterans, scored two penalties to win the day and provoke a fresh round of “Where has the Brazil of old gone?” headlines.

The semi-final is a rematch against group rival and eternal rival Argentina, who are miles ahead on paper and probably should win. Argentina in this case may end the day better… but never braver than a Paraguayan.

Marty Gleason

 

Despite another goal from Lucas Barrios against his ex-country and a battling performance from Paraguay, Argentina and Lionel Messi had one of their most inspired ever days and won the semi-final 6-1.

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