UDid Paraguay peak too early? For a while they were South America’s form side, capable of outplaying Argentina in Buenos Aires. Their splendid defensive unit from France 98 was still in place, and a new generation of strikers had come through to add firepower. A good World Cup run seemed assured.

Once they had qualified, however, the wheels fell off. Paraguay ended their campaign routed 4-0 by Colombia, a humiliating home defeat that cost coach Sergio Markarian his job.

‘I can’t understand the decision,’ said stalwart defender Celso Ayala when told of Markarian’s sacking. ‘I’ve known him for some time, and as well as being an excellent person, I don’t think we’ll find a better coach.

‘Despite having no infrastructure we’ve made it through to our second consecutive World Cup, so I don’t think it was right to take a step like this.’

Markarian, a feisty Uruguayan, had made some enemies in the Paraguayan FA, which was clearly looking for an excuse to get rid of him.

Another Paraguayan player to express his dismay was Ayala’s long-standing centre-back partner, Carlos Gamarra. But ifthe pair had not performed so poorly against Colombia, then Markarian would almost certainly still have a job. Both were given a torrid time by Faustino Asprilla, previously so ineffective in the campaign.

Markarian’s replacement, former Italy coach Cesare Maldini, will have to decide whether the Colombia game was just a rare off-day – or if Ayala and Gamarra have jointly reached the stage where they are beginning to become vulnerable.

Whatever the answer, there is no denying their immense contribution to Paraguayan football. ‘We’ve been together in the national team for more than eight years,’ says Ayala, ‘and we’ve always been close. It shows on the field. If either Gamarra or myself are missing, then Paraguay are not the same team.’

His theory is proved by the 1999 Copa America, held on home soil, when Ayala’s muscle tear put a rip through the side’s defensive solidity. A year earlier there had been no such problems. In the World Cup the pair broke Spanish hearts and came within six minutes of taking France to a penalty shoot-out.

Ayala usually operates on the right side of central defence. ‘I’m quick to see the danger and get to the ball,’ he says, ‘but my particular strength is in the air. I’ve never specifically worked on my jumping. It’s just a gift.’

Although Ayala is on the small side for a centre-back, his prodigious leap makes him a dominant figure in both penalty boxes.

Paulo Cesar Carpegiani, Paraguay’s coach at France 98, feels ‘he may be the best in the world in this aspect of the game’.

Carpegiani has cause to recall that Ayala scored the fastest goal at the last World Cup, heading home in the first minute against Nigeria. He also leapt to contribute Paraguay’s first goal in the latest qualification campaign.

But after his display against Colombia, Ayala needs to prove to new coach Maldini that he can still hit the heights.

Club River Plate (Arg)
Country Paraguay
Born August 20, 1970
Previous clubs Olimpia, River Plate (Arg), Real Betis (Spa), Atletico Madrid (Spa), Sao Paulo (Bra)
International caps 68 (5 goals)