Paraguay stunned the beach soccer world last February when they dished out an unprecedented defeat to multiple world champions Brazil in the South American qualifying competition for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Tahiti 2013.
Though they failed to follow up that ground-breaking semi-final win by winning the continental title – that honour going to Argentina – La Albirroja had done enough in beating the Brazilians to secure a place in the world finals for the first time in their history.
The Paraguayans had shown signs of significant progress in November last year, when they won the inaugural Bolivarian Beach Games in Peru. In doing so they eliminated both El Salvador and Venezuela, two sides who appeared at the 2011 world finals in Italy.
The man who masterminded those two outstanding achievements is Cayo Villalba, who took charge of Los Guaraníes a month before they won their maiden title on sand, having formed part of the national side’s previous coaching team.
“What’s the secret? To be honest, there’s none really, because the team’s been working together for a while and this is just a continuation of what we’ve been doing,” said Villalba, 62, in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com.
“Paraguay are taking beach soccer seriously now,” he added. “A lot of courts have been built and there are tournaments every summer too, with many football players switching to the game and adjusting to it very quickly. There’s also a cultural factor. Inland a lot of people play barefoot, which helps you develop really good touch. We’ve also improved our physical training, so it’s not really that surprising to see these results.”
Forging an identity
The players themselves also deserve some of the credit, as acknowledged by their coach, a former right-sided midfielder who played futsal before trying his hand at beach soccer: “They understood that the priority in this sport is to play as a team. And then there’s the fact they’ve got a winning mentality.”
Elaborating on that point, he said: “Before that semi-final with Brazil a lot of people said we should take it easy and save ourselves for the match for third place against Ecuador. That way it would be easier for us to qualify for the world finals they said. But I told the players that we had to go out there and win.”
As Villalba, who hails from the south-eastern city of Encarnacion, went on to say, that defeat of the Brazilians revealed a lot about his side’s style of play: “Our priority is more to defend than to score goals. You pay dearly for mistakes in this game, which is why we try to force errors and not make them ourselves. It can be physically exhausting, but we do have a big squad.”
Tahiti here we come
Paraguay have been drawn into Group D at Tahiti 2013 along with reigning world champions Russia, against whom the new boys will need no motivating.
“That’s true, but we need to be careful,” warned the coach. “We’ll have nothing to play for against Russia if we lose our first two games.
“Côte d’Ivoire have got some very good, pacy players and we’re expecting a physical game. Japan are so well organised they’re like a computer, and they always make it hard for you. Then we’ve got the Russians, who are big, hit the ball hard and have no chinks in their armour. Even though it’s our first world finals, the idea is to go out and play as if we’ve been around for a while.”
Rejecting the suggestion that the Paraguayans might be too confident heading into their first world finals, Villalba said: “Look, we’ve been saying the same thing over and over for a while now: the way we see it all the teams we play against are like Spain, Brazil or Russia. We know that we’re no bigger than anyone else, but we’re not any smaller either. And while it’s true that we lack experience, we need to go and gain it right there.”
In view of those words, Villalba’s next comment is easier to understand: “I’d come back from Tahiti a happy man if we’re still there on 28 September (the final day of the competition). That’s our objective,” he said without a trace of doubt in his voice.
So there is no question of Paraguay being complacent? “Not at all. If you don’t have faith in yourself and in what you’ve been working so hard on, then you shouldn’t be going to the World Cup. The main thing is to go out there with your feet on the ground and to fight, to give everything you have on the sand.”