Drawing a blank

Paraguay fared well at the Copa América and the World Cup, but as Simeon Tegel tells us, their style of play has frustrated many fans

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? That is the question dogging Paraguay’s national team after achieving two of their best ever tournament results, in the Copa América and World Cup, while barely winning a match. The Guaraníes, nicknamed after the indigenous group that still lives in swathes of the country, finished runners-up in August’s South American championship and made it to the last eight in South Africa, a first for the sparsely populated nation in a World Cup.

The manner in which they did so, reviving bleak memories of the impregnable and impotent Paraguayan side at France 98, has left many of their countrymen unsure how to react. In South Africa, Paraguay topped their group, although they only won one game, 2-0 against Slovakia. They scraped past Japan on penalties in a dire second-round tie, then lost 1-0 to Spain in the quarter-finals.

In this summer’s Copa América, Paraguay drew five games in a row before finally being outclassed 3-0 by Uruguay in the final. Yet two of those draws came against Brazil, including a 2-2 thriller. In another, Paraguay shared six goals with Venezuela, South America’s new kids on the block.

Then in October, the team began their qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014 by earning just one point from a possible six. First, the Guaraníes lost to Peru, who had been the whipping boys in the qualification campaign for South Africa, before drawing at home with Uruguay. It bears noting that Peru, who finished third in the Copa América, are resurgent, with a potent attacking quartet and a manager, Sergio Markarián, who exudes quiet authority. Meanwhile, Uruguay are clearly South America’s team of the moment.

Suggest to a Paraguayan that the selección are not aiming for three points in every game at your peril. “Paraguay do not play to draw,” says Ariel Ramírez, sports editor at Última Hora, one of the country’s leading papers. He insists that Paraguay’s recent run of draws is nothing more than a coincidence: “In the World Cup in 1998, we were fairly defensive but we are not now. We have some very good players and real power when we go forward.”

He has a point. Paraguay’s attack features the prolific Benfica striker Óscar Cardozo, who has scored 107 goals in 180 appearances for the Portuguese giants, and Nelson Valdez of Rubin Kazan, who was a revelation in South Africa. Then, of course, there is Roque Santa Cruz, one of the many talented forgotten men at Manchester City, who is now on loan at Real Betis and showing glimpses of the form he hit at Blackburn three years ago.

Complaining that Paraguay lack creativity might seem unduly harsh given the loss of Salvador Cabañas, of Mexican club América. Cabañas, who is probably the country’s best enganche (a classic No 10 playmaker) for three decades, was shot in the head in a nightclub in Mexico City last January. Amazingly, he survived and has made a strong recovery. Whether the 31-year-old will ever play competitive football again is unclear. “We still hope he will return, but it is a distant hope,” says Ramírez.

One explanation for Paraguay’s string of draws in the Copa América may be exhaustion, after three seasons in a row without a decent break. That other players coped better with the rigours of long European seasons, sandwiched between the World Cup and the biennial South American tournament, does not diminish the huge demands on players in the region. “They arrived dragging their feet,” says Ramírez. “They roused themselves for two great performances, against Ecuador and Brazil, but were then in total decline by the time they reached the final. The team looked exhausted.”

Now, as the Guaraníes attempt to qualify for a fifth World Cup in a row, the jury remains out on whether they will continue to overachieve. Paraguay’s conundrum was well summed up by Última Hora‘s coverage of the triumphant homecoming from the Copa América, with 3,000 cheering fans at the airport in Asunción. Below the online version of the article, one frustrated fan had posted: “We’re celebrating playing every game awfully? Are we crazy or what? We’re a long way from Brazil 2014. I don’t think we’ll qualify by drawing 20 games.”

From WSC 298 December 2011