But when it comes down to one against one in World Cups, the South Americans don’t fare so well. They went out in the second round in both 1998 and 2002, although both times to eventual finalists.
The closest they came was in France, pushing the eventual hosts and champions to extra-time, only to lose on a golden goal seven minutes from the final whistle with penalties beckoning.
This time round they started badly in the South American qualifiers losing their first match to Peru 4:1 but ran out in fourth place ahead of Uruguay for their third World Cup place on the run.
Ironically it’s a Uruguayan, Anibal ‘El Ma?o’ Ruiz, who will lead the team to Germany, the third foreigner to take command following Brazilian coach Carpeggiani Brasileiro and the Italian Cesare Maldini.
El Ma?o took charge in 2002 of a team from a football-crazy nation of six million people, a country of poor farmers, made up of mixed stock between indigenous Indians and descendents Spanish colonialists.
Paraguay is sandwiched between
The dual heredity can also be heard in the bilingual nature of the majority of the population who speak both Spanish and Guarani – the latter unfathomable to Spanish-only speakers and a useful weapon on the pitch against South American opposition.
But it also makes for a short and stocky population and a short and stocky defence. Anibal has already voiced his concern about his team’s vulnerability to aerial attack, principally against group B opponents England and their two-metre tall striker, Peter Crouch.
Paraguay have not had an auspicious history – they’ve played in six world cups but won only five out of 19 games. Tucked in a landlocked corner of South America, the country borders Bolivia and illustrious World Cup-winning neighbours Brazil and Argentina.
It’s that border, known as the Triple Frontier, that has given rise to the use of ‘Paraguayan’ as shorthand for anything false or fake. It’s the location of one of the largest black markets in world, worth an estimated $12 billion annually, centred in the city of Cuidad Del Este.
Dos Santos(C) is one Paraguayan
Thousands criss-cross the chaotic border each day in search of cheap TVs, bottles of Chanel no.6 and the odd Mona Lisa, the traffic added to by hordes of foreign tourists who come to see the spectacular waterfalls at Foz do Iguacu, a bus ride away.
But there’s nothing counterfeit about their top football clubs Olimpia Asuncion, Cerro Porte?o and Liberdad who always give a strong showing in the Libertadores, South America’s version of the Champions League.
Liberdad will play Argentina’s River Plate for a place in the semi-finals when the competition, along with domestic championships, will restart after the World Cup.
The clubs provide the bulk of Paraguay’s homebased players – but most play abroad, notably in Germany, in part thanks to historical links between the two nations. The capital Asuncion has a large German community.
One is star striker Roque Santa Cruz, one of two squad players at Bayern Munich, along with Julio dos Santos. Cruz, who made his debut for Paraguay aged 17 has recovered from injury and gives the team a quality in attack they have always possessed in defence.
If anyone epitomises this, it is captain Carlos Alberto Gamarra, 34, at centre-half. With more than 100 caps to his name, Gamarra is already a veteran of two World Cups and with a particular distinction – in eight games in 1998 and 2002 he hasn’t committed a single foul.
Fifa, football’s world governing body, named him in their World Cup XI in France ’98.
After spending the past three seasons in Italy with Internazionale, he is now anchoring the defence at Palmeiras in Brazil.
A fit Santa Cruz will be key to
But Gamarra’s famous colleague, the flamboyant goalkeeper Jose Luiz Chilavert will not be in Germany after hanging up his boots in 2004. The three-times former world goalkeeper of the year was famous for his goalscoring exploits, being the only keeper in the world to have scored a hattrick in one game and marking 8 goals for his country.
His last honour, and that of Paraguay, was a silver medal at the Olympics in 2004, losing in the final to Argentina. On the way to Athens, the team had eliminated Brazil in the qualifying competition. If anyone thinks Paraguay are making up the numbers, that fact alone should make their opponents sit up.
Anibal’s men face England in their opening game in Frankfurt on June 10th. The manager is hoping for good results against Sweden and Group B whipping boys Trinidad and Tobago to go through to the second phase of the competition for a third successive time.
It could set up a potential clash with hosts Germany, a repeat of 2002 when they lost 1:0.
In their warm-up matches against Norway in Oslo and Denmark in Copenhagen they could only manage to finish level at 2:2 and 1:1 respectively, drawing criticism at home. But, as El Man? knows well, the real duelling starts now.