The shooting of talismanic striker Salvador Cabañas in Mexico City in January has done little to dampen optimism created by what Paraguayans see as an easy group draw in which they should qualify behind Italy. Argentine Lucas Barrios – not called up by Maradona despite prolific scoring in the Bundesliga – recently gained dual nationality. Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Haedo Váldez ensure some depth up front, albeit with no spark, and, even without Cabañas, defender Antolín Alcaraz reckons they can make the semis. Expectations are quite low in Slovakia, where a first qualification for a major tournament was greeted with wide-eyed wonder. A 1-0 home friendly defeat to Norway only reinforced the sense that they have done well to be going to South Africa at all. But if they beat New Zealand in their opening game, a place in the last 16 is a possibility.
Coach Vladimir Weiss Senior is very popular and has been able to criticise the Slovak football authorities for various forms of incompetence and/or inertia from a position of strength. His insistence that the crumbling Tehelne Pole ground in Bratislava is not a suitable setting for international football has won him friends, not least in the rival city of Zilina, where Slovakia have played their last two games.
Gerardo Martino played under Chile’s coach Marcelo Bielsa in Argentina in the 1990s. He’s lower-profile in Paraguay than his one-time mentor is in Chile, but with numerous league titles to his name he’s widely respected for helping his team to their best-ever qualifying campaign – just like Bielsa. Cabañas is easily the most interviewed Paraguay player, even without being in the squad. That’s probably just as well, because with the players more than happy to tread Martino’s party line, there won’t be a great deal of interest said by anyone anyway.
Expect some sort of tribute to Cabañas if the team manage to score without him. Some in the media aren’t too happy with the Argentine Martino bringing in so many of his countrymen (as well as Barrios, Jonathan Santana, Néstor Ortigoza and Jonathan Fabbro are all naturalised Argentines), but the players won’t be grumbling.
Jan Kozak has given good value to the Slovak media in the past with some disparaging comments about the fans of Slovan Bratislava. Having later signed for Slovan, he affected bemusement when the fans didn’t take to him. Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel has a habit of mumbling semi-audibly. Their team-mates are all fairly conventional, though Marek Hamsik, with his taste for gold jewellery, designer glasses and silly haircuts, looks like he would love to be on the catwalk. Patricia Vittekova, Robert Vittek’s wife, currently participating in the Let’s Dance TV show, has had a few headlines recently for pointing out that “I’m not just Robert Vittek’s wife”.
Vratislav Gresko, formerly of Inter and Blackburn, is the only Slovak player from the modern era working as a pundit and is pretty good. Most of the other experts are current or former managers. Best of the lot is Ladislav Borbely. He looks rather like a heavy metal icon but has the admirable gift of being able to tell you things you didn’t know without sounding patronising.
Amazingly, around 8,000 Paraguayans are expected to travel. That’s more than Argentina or Chile – larger nations with more mobile populations – are taking. Many of the Slovak fans will be higher-income types who would disdain the idea of attending domestic football. Sam Kelly & James Baxter