A Paraguayan, goes the saying, can be beaten by a better man, but never by a braver one. But with the financial gap between European and South American football wider than ever, Olimpia will need to perform an act of legendary heroism if they are to overcome Real Madrid in the World Club Cup Final on December 3.
Twelve years ago on their previous visit to Japan, the Paraguayans went down 3-0 to a Milan side in their pomp, and most will be expecting a similar scoreline this time. In terms of tradition, though, this is no mismatch. Ever since they were formed, exactly a century ago, Olimpia have been Paraguay’s leading club, and they are also well established as a continental power. Stalwarts of the Libertadores Cup, they have participated in all but 10 of the 43 editions, a record bettered only by Penarol of Uruguay.
They were beaten finalists in the inaugural Libertadores in 1960 and 19 years later became the first side outside Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay to lift the trophy. The big three countries have missed out only five times. On three of those occasions Olimpia were champions.
Olimpia have won the World Club Cup before. In 1979, they beat Malmo in the competition also known as the Intercontinental Cup, the World Club Championship and, for sponsorship purposes, the Toyota Cup. Then, the Final was played over two legs, with Malmo representing Europe after European champions Nottingham Forest followed the example of Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool in refusing to take part.
It was only when the Japanese stepped in and offered to host a one-off match on a neutral ground – Tokyo’s National stadium – that credibility was restored. The match moves this year to Yokohama’s International stadium, venue for June’s World Cup Final.
This year, the meeting between traditional giants takes on the air of David and Goliath, largely because one side keeps getting bigger while the other is shrinking.
If Olimpia could hold on to the stars they have groomed (such as Celso Ayala, Denis Caniza, Carlos Paredes, Jorge Campos and Roque Santa Cruz) then they could swagger into the game against Real with at least a puncher’s chance. But all have long since moved on to greener pastures. While Real can parade the idols of the global game, Olimpia’s team can broadly be divided into three groups: some on the way to Europe, some who have come back, and the majority who will never receive the call.
The gulf in resources has been cruelly widened at the very point where it matters most – centre-forward. Where Madrid have added Ronaldo to the team that won the Champions League, Olimpia may have to do without their main marksman from their successful Libertadores campaign.
A fit Richart Baez, with his capacity to fight a lone battle up front, would be fundamental to Olimpia’s game plan. But the striker has found himself wrapped up in red tape. He was loaned back from Mexico to play in the Libertadores, and the Paraguayan FA has ruled him ineligible for the domestic League.
Baez has not played since scoring a vital goal in the second leg of the Libertadores Final on July 31. Frustrated by his inactivity, he has talked of returning to Mexico.
Even if Olimpia can wield some influence and get Baez back in action, he is bound to be short of match fitness. But whatever else they may lack, Olimpia will surely have the edgein motivation. This is their big day, when they have little to lose and worldwide reputations to gain.
They plan to travel to Japan on November 21, giving themselves every chance to adjust to the time zone and temperature difference. Such a build-up has not always worked for South American teams; spending so long focusing on the game in Japan has left them too tense to do themselves justice.
Olimpia, though, should have enough experience in the squad to ensure that they play to their potential. In all probability, they will treat the game like an away tie in the Libertadores – in seven away ties in this year’s competition, they conceded just six goals.
The defence picks itself. In front of keeper Ricardo Tavarelli will be a back four of Nestor Isasi, Julio Cesar Caceres, Nelson Zelaya and Henrique Da Silva. The full-backs will tuck in, and with the line operating close together they will seek to reduce Madrid’s space and funnel the ball towards the excellent Caceres.
During the Libertadores the make-up of the midfield was similarly predictable. Julio Cesar Enciso was the anchorman, Sergio Orteman took the right flank, Gaston Cordoba the left, while Victor Quintana and Juan Carlos Franco competed for the remaining place. But the latter two have both moved on, to Brazil and Libya respectively, leaving coach Nery Pumpido with a decision on his hands.
If Baez is unable to partner the veteran Miguel Benitez, then the skilful Rodrigo Lopes could be Olimpia’s surprise weapon. It would leave the side without a target man, but fielding a tricky front duo should give Olimpia the chance to force some free-kicks – which might be their best chanceof getting on the scoresheet and causing an upset.