Cesare Maldini’s attempt to coach Paraguay from his base in Italy was always likely to end in tears. He struggled to remember the names of the players and his failure to get to grips with local culture did not go down well. But in one respect, at least, the veteran Italian left Paraguayan football in better shape than when he found it.

On one of his rare visits he identified “Olimpia’s number 5” as worthy of a call-up to the national team.

And now, with a successful World Cup and a Libertadores Cup triumph behind him, Julio Cesar Caceres looks set to be a key player for Paraguay for years to come.

However, his path to stardom has been long and winding. Caceres grew up poor in a remote rural part of the country, and even after moving to the capital, Asuncion, to join Olimpia in 1997, there was no immediate escape from tough economic choices. He often had to walk miles to training after using his bus fare to buy food.

Perhaps it was because of such precarious conditions that he took over three years to make his first-team breakthrough. Caceres had always specialised as a defensive midfielder, but towards the end of last year Olimpia had a crisis at centre-half, and the youngster was moved back to fill the gap.

Almost by accident, he had found his true vocation. With his excellent anticipation, superbly timed tackles and crisp distribution, having the play in front of him made it easier to stamp his authority on the game.

Magnificent form in the Libertadores convinced Maldini that Caceres would be a World Cup asset, and with a shrewd piece of tactical thinking he was incorporated into the team. The new boy came in at right-back, freeing the gifted Francisco Arce to push forward. When Paraguay were under pressure, Arce dropped deeper and Caceres moved inside to become a third centre-back.

After the World Cup, Caceres returned to Olimpia with his sights set on winning the Libertadores. An excess of football might have taken its toll. Well though he played in the semis and the Final, he fell slightly short of the standard he had set earlier in the year.

He will have to raise his game once more ifhis expected move to Europe goes through. Milan, presumably because of the Maldini connection, have already made an enquiry.

“I’m aware clubs are interested in me,” says Caceres. “But before moving on I want to go the full circle with Olimpia, because they opened up the path for me.”

Now it is up to him to see how far ahead the road will stretch.

FACT FILE
Club
Olimpia
Country Paraguay
Born October 5, 1979, in San Jose dos Arroyos
International debutApril 2002, v England
International caps 5 (0 goals)
Honours Libertadores Cup 2002; Paraguayan League 2000