Think of Paraguayan football and names such as Roque Santa Cruz, Oscar Cardozo and Nelson Valdez immediately come to mind, as does La Albirroja’s hugely impressive performance at 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and the recent attempts of coach Victor Genes to get the national team back on course for Brazil 2014, which were ultimately in vain.
Few people would be likely to bring the U-17 women’s national team into the conversation, however, or their star players Evelyn Vera, Griselda Garay and Magali Brizuela, the tactics pursued by their coach Julio Carlos Gomez or, for that matter, their chances of reaching the world finals.
Yet, all that could change over the next couple of weeks, as Paraguay hosts the fourth U-17 Women’s South American Championship, an event that should provide the nation with a welcome and timely distraction from the country’s failed Brazil 2014 qualification campaign.
The tournament starts today and runs through to 29 September, with three tickets up for grabs for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Costa Rica 2014, to be held on 15 March-5 April next year.
“This is the first time we’ve hosted a tournament like this in our country and it’s a massive opportunity for us to show our fans how much work has gone into the women’s game here,” Coach Gomez told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview on the eve of the tournament. “It could also encourage more and more people to come and join us.”
It was back in 2011 that Gomez was approached by the President of the Paraguayan Football Association, Juan Angel Napout, and presented with the following challenge: to get more girls to take up the game and create a basic structure for the future growth of women’s football.
Gomez picked up the gauntlet and is proud of the job he has done: “I think we’ve done a lot of work in a short period of time.”
He added: “We embarked on the process with the support of FIFA’s development programmes and we’ve been able to set up school and university tournaments. The country’s leading clubs have got involved too, which has really helped, and we’re scouting for talent in their youth academies and at schools.”
As a result, Gomez has been able to put together a 22-strong squad that will now set about the task of booking a place at Costa Rica 2014, which will begin with them taking on Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and Chile in Group A of the continental finals.
“We’re hopeful of doing well and getting through the first round,” said the coach. “We want to make the final round, but it won’t be easy because women’s football has come on a lot in every country. We’re enthusiastic about what we’re doing though, and we’re confident we can fight for one of the World Cup slots.”
Group B features Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, with the first two sides in each section advancing to a four-team round robin group, the top three in which will qualify for next year’s world finals. Matches will be staged at the home stadiums of Paraguayan clubs Rubio Nu and Fernando de la Mora.
“Nothing comes easy in women’s football,” continued Gomez. “It’s not a popular sport here and the same is true of the rest of South America. It’s hard to get through to people and capture their imagination. We don’t have a strong or stable structure as yet but we’re putting a lot into this and we’re starting to make some headway.
“We’re moving forward slowly but surely. We’re following a development plan, we’re full of optimism and we’ve got high hopes for the future. We’re laying the foundations with the U-17s and the U-20s.”
Cerro Porteno are the leading women’s team in the land, having won the 2012 league title outright and made off with the 2013 Apertura championship. The televising of the continental U-17 championships across the country should also give the Paraguayan women’s game a major boost.
Colombia showed just how important the competition is when they won it the first time it was held in 2008. Since then Las Cafeteras have not missed a single world finals at this age level, while their seniors have also gone from strength from strength, reaching the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ and the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012. Just for good measure Colombia also took fourth place at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Germany 2010.
“We’re going to have the media’s attention,” said a hopeful Gomez. “I’m confident we’ll see some big crowds at the stadiums and I think they’ll have a good time. This tournament is going to be a big shot in the arm.”
As for the future, the coach has big plans: “There’s no reason why we can’t dream of having a professional college league one day.”