Paraguay: dreams of a golden dawn
This Saturday morning, even before the sun rises over the lush pampas, the people of Paraguay will be decked out in their famous red and white and gathering religiously around their TVs. The reason for their early morning vigil is simple: thousands of miles away in Athens, Carlos Jara's heroes will be gunning for Olympic Gold against a formidable Argentinian side. Win or lose, the Guaraníes will go down in history as their appearance in the final has already guaranteed them the first medal of any description in Paraguay's history.
Just as the Albirroja were embarking on their Greek adventure, they received the shocking news that a blaze in a shopping centre in Asunción had left hundreds dead and missing. A month after the tragedy, Jara's men will have the opportunity to bring some badly needed cheer to the people of the city. "We know that nothing can ever bring back their loved ones, but we are thinking about the families of the victims and we want to bring a smile to their faces," the Paraguayan coach told FIFA.com before their semi-final win over Iraq.
"I'm proud of my players because they have shown pride and desire at the most difficult moments. They have a driving ambition that has brought them this far and hopefully it can carry them to their final objective: gold. We're on the verge of realising our dreams, but to go all the way we'll have to be prepared to die out there on the field," he added.
Incredible as it sounds, Paraguay has never won a medal of any description in its long history. Until now, it seemed they were destined never to step on to the podium. All that began to change early this year when Paraguay's young side shocked the world by eliminating Brazil from the Olympic Qualifiers in Chile.
"What we've achieved here is a huge triumph for us and like nothing we've ever done before," says Edgar Barreto. "I don't have the words to describe the overwhelming sense of happiness that we're feeling. Getting an Olympic medal was the target we set ourselves even before the qualifiers in Chile," confided Diego Figueredo.
Paraguay's leading dailies all led with news of the side's historic victory over Iraq that secured the team a medal. "Yesterday was the greatest day in the history of Paraguayan sport," ran the ABC. "The Albirroja make history" assured La Nación. So as the excitement builds, is there any danger of the players settling for what they have already achieved? "None whatsoever," warns Figueredo. "We're not satisfied yet. We have another task to fulfil, and that's to win the gold."
Lest there be any doubt, Carlos Gamarra, the veteran defender and charismatic leader of the group, sets the record straight: "We came here to win a medal and we've achieved that. Now we must be more ambitious and set our sights on gold."
"Everyone knows that we have a score to settle with Argentina as we've never managed to beat them in a major competition. Now we've been given another chance to put that right and I believe we're capable of doing it." The words are those of Pedro Benítez, and they sum up the mood in the Paraguayan squad. The players believe that although Argentina are a formidable rival and most people's favourite, their desire for revenge and strong sense of pride could propel them to glory on the day.
"We faced them in the Olympic Qualifiers and did enough to beat them. Unfortunately they scored twice in the dying minutes to win the tournament," recalls José Devaca. "Every game is different though, and I believe we can make it even more difficult for them this time. The stakes are even higher and we have some unfinished business to take care of."
Jara, for his part, had this to say: "Argentina have been playing with the same team for a considerable time and at a very high level. But we're living a dream here in Athens and I just hope that we have what it takes to match them on the day."