Slowly but surely, Paraguay are once again moving in the right direction. After arriving at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ with what looked like the perfect blend of veterans and youngsters, the Albirroja then surprised everyone by failing to get past the group stage. The response of the Paraguayan FA (APF) was to appoint a new coach to start over and, less than a year into that process, the signs are that they chose the right path.
The most recent evidence is the promising start Paraguay have made in the region's qualifiers for South Africa 2010, in which they followed an opening-day draw in Peru with a comprehensive win at home to Uruguay. These results not only gave an early boost to their FIFA World Cup™ ambitions, they also helped move the team up five places to number 26 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Granted the Albirroja are still a long way off their best ever position, 8th in March 2001, but it is as high as they have been for 12 months.
'Tata' at the helm
In late 2006, the APF decided to bring an end to the era of Anibal Ruiz, replacing him with Argentinian coach Gerardo Martino, who had enjoyed successful spells in charge of Paraguayan giants Libertad and Cerro Porteno. Internal problems prevented 'Tata' from taking charge of the team until March this year, at which time the Guaraníes occupied 29th spot in the Ranking. On the day he officially began his tenure, the former Albiceleste midfielder set out his stall, saying, "Clearly, our main objective will be the qualifying phase for South Africa 2010."
The new incumbent nevertheless took his top players to this year's Copa America in Venezuela, where Paraguay finished second in their group to move into the quarter-finals. That was as good as it got, however, with Martino's charges then suffering a crushing 6-0 reverse at the hands of Mexico. In spite of that defeat, the AFP kept faith in their new coach, backing him publicly to see through the project he had embarked on.
Unsurprisingly Martino himself was stressing the need for patience when he spoke to FIFA.com last August: "It will take time. A good example is my work with Libertad. For four years we were the best side in the league along with Cerro [Porteno], but we couldn't get past the group stages of the Copa Libertadores. In my fifth year, however, not only did we emerge from the group, we went all the way to the semi-finals. What you need is time, as well as suitable and responsible people who have the desire to improve."
With old stalwarts like Jose Cardozo, Carlos Gamarra and Roberto Acuna having made way for the next generation, the task of leading the team through this transitional phase falls to men like Justo Villar, Julio Cesar Caceres, Claudio Morel Rodriguez and Denis Caniza. This will involve getting the best out of the team's established, though still young, internationals such as Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Haedo Valdez, as well as up-and-coming players like Jose Montiel and Cristian Bogado.
"Paraguayan football is going through a period of transition, in which we're looking to new players to cement the gains made over the last 15 years. I believe that we have those players now and that they're capable of doing precisely that. That's our principle objective," insisted Martino. The early signs from the qualifiers would seem to support his assertion, and it will be interesting to see if the team can build on that further in their South Africa qualifiers at home to Ecuador and away to Chile this week.
Time, not to mention the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, will soon provide the answers.