La Albirroja go into their eighth finals without their leading scorer in qualifying
Nelson Haedo Valdez told a German magazine at the beginning of this year: “In Paraguay people think this is the best national team we’ve ever had. If we don’t make the second round, we’d better not come home for holidays!”
But soon after the interview was published, Paraguay’s World Cup build-up suffered a huge blow when Haedo Valdez’s strike partner, Salvador Cabanas, was shot in the head in Mexico City. After sitting on the bench throughout the last World Cup, Cabanas would have been a key figure this time. Top scorer in qualification, he was like two players in one – having originally been a midfielder, in addition to his goal threat he can also drop deep to create chances.
However, even without Cabanas the side can count on considerable firepower, especially if Roque Santa Cruz can stay fit and Oscar Cardozo can reproduce his club form. There is also the class and bustle of Haedo Valdez and, at the 11th hour, the possibility of him being joined by Borussia Dortmund team-mate Lucas Barrios, whose nationalisation process was concluded in April.
Hopes in Paraguay remain high that this time the elusive quarter-final place might be in their grasp, especially as coach Gerardo Martino brings a much more attacking outlook than some of his predecessors. In their fourth consecutive World Cup, Paraguay will not be fighting from inside a bunker.
With typical modesty, Martino is quick to pay tribute to Anibal Ruiz, the Uruguay-born coach who took the team to Germany four years ago. “His qualification was the most important because he was there at the end of that great group of players from the 1998 and 2002 World Cups,” says Martino.
“And this new generation, which is also brilliant, was only just coming through.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that this impoverished country of some six million people appears to have avoided the problem which tripped up far bigger South American nations. Peru in the 1970s, and Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, are the classic example of teams who had success with one generation of players, only to fall back into the pack afterwards. Meanwhile Paraguay march on. “Our strength is our collective game, ” says Martino. “This isn’t down to me – it’s a natural characteristic of Paraguayan teams and players.”
And under a coach who wants to attack, the nation hopes that teamwork and the odd flash of talent will be good enough to reach the quarter-finals.
The view from Paraguay
“It’s a real shame that Cabanas is out because he was our best player in qualification. We still have some top players – Riveros and Haedo Valdez are fundamental. In general, though, what we have is a compact team without stars. It’s very hard to imagine us winning the World Cup, but it will be a big disappointment if we don’t qualify from our group – and then let’s see who we’re up against.”
Romerito, ex-Paraguay midfielder
“Even without Cabanas, our best striker in the qualifiers, this team has a far stronger attack than previous Paraguayan sides in the World Cup. Based on this, I think we have real chances of our best-ever World Cup performance. Three times we have got into the last 16. Now I think we can make the quarter finals.”
Gabriel Cazenave, ABC Color head of sports