The sense of relief was palpable in the Paraguay dressing room after their hard-fought 3-2 win over the host nation in their final match in Group A of the FIFA Futsal World Cup Thailand 2012.
And no wonder. After all, La Albirroja had just come within a single goal of going out of the tournament at the first hurdle, an outcome few envisaged for a side that had arrived in the Far East as genuine contenders. One of the key factors in their narrow win over the Thais was the performance of goalkeeper Carlos Espinola, who pulled off three crucial blocks in the final minute alone to keep the Paraguayans in the competition.
“What happened to us in the group phase? I honestly feel we thought we’d get through easily,” said the Albirroja No1, in conversation with FIFA.com. “Our opponents soon brought us back down to Earth, though, and we learned the lesson. Paraguay have a lot more to offer and we wouldn’t have deserved to go out so early.”
Shying away from excuses, Espinola offered up an explanation for his side’s shaky form: “I think we felt the pressure of being favourites because a lot’s expected of this team back in Paraguay. Then there’s the fact that we came up against three very good sides who gave us three different tests. You have to give them credit for that too.”
The 31-year-old Asuncion-born shotstopper added: “It was a really big ask to have to finish off the group against the hosts and get a result, which is why we had a meeting before the game. There were a few raised voices because we felt we weren’t playing with the grit and determination Paraguay’s known for. It was a tough showdown but it was worth it. We showed character and we’re ready now to give anyone a fight.”
I can’t keep my mouth shut during games and a lot of times I end up hoarse and getting stick from my team-mates.
A regular presence in the Albirroja set-up since the 2003 Copa America, Espinola knows what his role is in the team. “It’s often said that the goalkeeper is the coach on the pitch, and there’s some truth in that,” he said, before explaining with a laugh: “I can’t keep my mouth shut during games and a lot of times I end up hoarse and getting stick from my team-mates.”
Single-minded and stockily built, Espinola has never tried his luck at the 11-a-side game and earns his living as a civil servant in the Paraguayan Health Ministry’s Environmental Department, all while taking an accountancy degree, which he is now in the third year of.
The keeper, who is missing the first birthday of his second son to be in Thailand, explained his love for the game: “Futsal is my passion. I’ve been playing it since I was 12 and I’m so proud to be representing my country at another World Cup.”
Espinola shared the goalkeeping duties for his country at Brazil 2008, where Paraguay faced Portugal, their next opponents in the Round of 16 on Sunday, in the group phase. That game ended in a 3-2 win for the Portuguese, and the Paraguayan custodian is expecting another close encounter.
“They’ve come on since then. They’re very organised and have some talented individuals. The fact that Joao Bendito won’t be in goal [following his red card against Brazil] is good news for us. It’ll definitely be worth watching.”
Now that Paraguay have emerged unscathed from their group-phase travails, Espinola believes he and his team-mates can only improve in the knockout rounds: “It’s a different World Cup that’s starting now, though this is the closest in history. With the exception of Brazil, Spain, Russia and Italy, the rest will have to fight tooth and nail to go through.”
So just what are La Albirroja capable of? “Anything,” replied the custodian, winding up our chat. “We prepared really well and we’ve come here with a very clear objective: to reach the final. And if you get that far, you just have to go for it. Let’s get one thing clear: if we take things step by step and stay grounded, we’re more than ready to be champions.”