Paraguay look to steal Iraq's thunder
They are the reason Brazil are not at the Olympics, have a story just as remarkable as Iraq's and are hell bent on pipping Argentina to become only the second South American nation to strike Olympic gold. The world may be watching out for Iraq but their semi-final opponents Paraguay are on a mission of their own.
Paraguay have reached the last four of a major international competition for the first time in their history but things have not exactly gone according to plan. For a team better known for defensive stinginess than attacking flair, it has been rather a rollercoaster ride so far. After their cracking 4-3 opening victory over Japan, they conceded two sloppy goals in the last ten minutes to go down to Ghana, before needing the more accustomed 1-0 victory over European champions Italy to qualify. Then in the quarters, they were cruising at 3-0 but ended up hanging on for dear lives as Korea Republic struck the sixth and seventh goals conceded by Carlos Gamarra and co. in the normally sturdy Guarani defence.
"Is it better to win 4-3 than 1-0? Well we try to score as many goals as possible and concede as few. So, yes, I suppose 4-0 would be the better result," laughs a relaxed coach Carlos Jara. "But we play according to the team we face and so far we have played open and attractive football."
Figures among the facts
The statistics show the Albirrojos have wracked up nine goals but they do not reveal their quality. From individual strikes, superbly manoeuvred team efforts and well worked set pieces, strikers - veteran Jose Cardozo and new kid on the block Fredy Bareiro - have notched three a piece and the competitiveness between the two is helping to drive the team forward.
"The players deserve full credit," Jara acknowledges. "We wanted to perform well and we have done so without losing sight of winning a medal.
"And it has not been easy to get here I can tell you. Ghana were tough and quick, Italy, the European champions says it all, while Korea were like Japan - always willing. We have had to perform to the maximum."
Like their opponents Iraq, Paraguay's youngsters used their continental championship for much needed match practice after they stunned South America by finishing ahead of Brazil in the Olympic qualifiers back in January. And just as Adnan Hamad's sensations did in the Asian Cup, Jara's side reached the quarter-finals of the Copa America last month, defeating Brazil again along the way.
"It was an excellent tournament," recalls Jara. "We won our group outright and just came unstuck against Uruguay in the quarters. We are here now though and achieving the best position ever in Paraguay's history."
Iraq, a country devastated by way and whose team are forced to play matches on foreign soil, have, naturally, grabbed the headlines. But Paraguay, a nation of just five million people sandwiched between footballing superpowers Brazil and Argentina, is an equally gripping tale. The two will now fight it out for a chance of a fairytale ending.
"The commotion over Iraq won't affect our players," promises the coach. "They are professionals and being in the semi-final is motivation enough. I haven't seen much of Iraq play but all I know is if we win, we will at least take home the silver medal and if we lose, we will try for bronze."
But as he realises Uruguay are the only South American side to claim Olympic gold, Jara's flashing eyes betray the real prize.
"What would they say if we get there before Argentina? I hope we are the second."