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In sports, the "fairy tale" metaphor is bandied about quite frequently. "This team’s rise through the playoffs has been the stuff of fairy tales." "For this club, winning the trophy is a true Cinderella story." "The way they wiggled out from near-certain defeat brought to mind Hansel and Gretel…" You get the point. But for Paraguay, their story of the road to South Africa does not bring to mind a fairy tale, but rather a soap opera.
In the land of South American giants, Paraguay is often overlooked. The Paraguay national side, nicknamed La Albirroja or white and red, after the colors of the national flag, is often overshadowed by the heavyweights of CONMEBOL, particularly Argentina and Brazil. Yet with the signing of Gerardo Martino as head coach in 2007, La Albirroja will be showing the world a different form of Paraguayan football.
Previously considered a nation willing to sit back and play defensive football, Paraguay is no longer content to be viewed as a squad that is content to play for a draw. While still promoting a deep defense, Martino, affectionately nicknamed "Tata," has assembled a team ready to apply offensive pressure. They’ve also worked to overcome a dearth of self-confidence. After qualification victories against Brazil and Argentina, Paraguayan players are no longer intimidated by the reputation of their rivals—which is fortunate, as they play defending champions Italy in their first World Cup match.
Yet La Albirroja still find themselves amidst plenty of drama. Last January, Salvador Cabañas, who has had 10 goals in 44 appearances for Paraguay, was shot in the head outside a Mexican nightclub. The striker survived, but the rehabilitation process is ongoing, and he will not be playing in South Africa. Cabañas was the leading scorer in qualification play and his powerful, incisive strikes will be missed. The shooting continues to rest heavily on the minds of the Paraguayan players, many of whom have stated that any success they have in the tournament will be dedicated to Cabañas.
Another thread weaving through the soap opera of La Albirroja is the subject of the replacement for Cabañas. Argentinean-born Lucas Barrios renounced his Argentine citizenship and received his Paraguayan passport in March, allowing Tata to name him to the 30-man provisional squad. Considering the historical football rivalry between Argentina and Paraguay, many fans expressed displeasure over the expedited process allowing Barrios citizenship. But with goals in each of Paraguay’s first two friendlies, it is unlikely that either fans or players will allow such a minor detail as Barrios’s place of birth to color their opinion of the striker.
Paraguay got off to a sparkling start in qualification play, winning six, drawing twice and losing just one in their first nine games. With CONMEBOL’s extended qualification play, however, La Albirroja still had nine more games to play. They only won four of their remaining matches, with four losses and one draw. However, they still managed to beat Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay—the other South American nations that qualified for the tournament. And considering they managed to finish just one point below leaders Brazil, Paraguay head to South Africa feeling that their squad is the strongest it has ever been.
Paraguay reached the second round of World Cup play in 1986, 1998, and 2002, but have never progressed further in the modern tournament. In 2006, their only win was in their final group game, against Trinidad and Tobago.
Roque Santa Cruz – Fans of La Albirroja will be crossing their fingers that their golden boy stays healthy. Although Manchester City paid £17.5 million for the Paraguayan star, Santa Cruz missed most of the Premier League season. Yet the striker insists he is nearing full fitness, and if he stays healthy, his physical strength and aerial finesse give Tata some of the offensive prowess that he seeks for his squad.
Lucas Barrios – The newly-minted Paraguayan may not have contributed any goals to his country’s qualification play, but he brings 23 from his season with Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. Barrios is nicknamed "The Panther" due to his ability to slip inside the target area, from where his shots rarely miss.
Oscar Cardozo – Yet another striker on a team seemingly full of offensive ability, Cardozo has been criticized for his inability to contribute to the national side. Oscar has scored four times in 29 appearances for La Albirroja, but his detractors point to his 38 goals scored this season for Benfica and wonder why he can’t hit the net so often in international competition. He’s another who is strong in the air, as well as a threat from free kicks.
With a surge of confidence and plenty of added fire power, Paraguay are nearly a lock to make it through a relatively weak Group F. Their second match, against Slovakia, will be the determining factor in which nation will advance. Should Paraguay make it through to the second round, they’ll almost certainly face the Netherlands. Unfortunately, 2010 is probably not the year to place a bet on La Albirroja advancing any further.
|June 14||Italy||Cape Town|
|June 24||New Zealand||Polokwane|
|Barreto, Diego||28||3||0||Cerro Porteno (Paraguay)|
|Bobadilla, Aldo||34||19||0||Independiente Medellin (Colombia)|
|Villar, Justo||32||72||0||Real Valladolid (Spain)|
|Alcaraz, Antolin||27||4||0||Wigan Athletic (England)|
|Bonet, Carlos||32||63||0||Olimpia (Paraguay)|
|Caniza, Denis||35||96||1||Leon (Mexico)|
|Caceres, Julio Cesar||30||62||2||Atletico Mineiro (Brazil)|
|da Silva, Paulo||30||70||2||Sunderland (England)|
|Morel, Claudio||32||27||0||Boca Juniors (Argentina)|
|Torres, Aureliano||27||28||2||San Lorenzo (Argentina)|
|Veron, Dario||30||28||0||UNAM (Mexico)|
|Barreto, Edgar||25||47||1||Atalanta (Mexico)|
|Caceres, Victor||25||26||0||Libertad (Paraguay)|
|Ortigoza, Nestor||25||5||0||Argentinos Juniors (Argentina)|
|Riveros, Cristian||27||48||8||Sunderland (England)|
|Santana, Jonathan||28||23||0||Wolfsburg (Germany)|
|Vera, Enrique||31||27||1||Atlas (Mexico)|
|Barrios, Lucas||25||2||2||Borussia Dortmund (Germany)|
|Benitez, Edgar||22||12||1||Pachuca (Mexico)|
|Cardozo, Oscar||27||29||4||Benfica (Portugal)|
|Gamarra, Rodolfo||21||3||0||Libertad (Paraguay)|
|Santa Cruz, Roque||28||69||21||Manchester City (England)|
|Valdez, Nelson||26||38||9||Borussia Dortmund (Germany)|
* - age as of June 11, 2010
Kirsten Schlewitz bring huge confidence and added fire power to each of her World Cup contributions for SB Nation Soccer. Her strength on the key can be seen regularly at 7500 to Holte, SB Nation's Aston Villa blog.
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