Paraguay's qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, this is the fourth time running that La Albirroja have reached the finals, an indication of the shift in the balance of power in South America, where the likes of Argentina and Uruguay once viewed qualification for the biggest football show on Earth as a divine right.
Wednesday evening's 1-0 defeat of La Albiceleste in Asuncion sparked joyous scenes throughout the country and on the pitch, with the entire squad rushing to hug each other when the final whistle blew at the Estadio Defensores del Chaco, shedding tears of joy as they did so.
One man who preferred to keep his calm amid the noise and excitement, however, was coach Gerardo Martino. "I'm very happy, of course I am," he said, struggling to make himself heard as some of his coaching staff and players celebrated beneath a huge national flag, while another smaller group paraded a flag bearing the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa logo in front of the ecstatic 40,000 crowd. "We've worked very hard for this and we thoroughly deserve it. Today we can finally say we've reached the World Cup after beating a great team in a very tough game."
"We've suffered a bit more in the second half of the qualifying tournament, which is what you'd expect," continued the Argentinian tactician. "It's not normal to go through a whole campaign playing like we did in the first part of the competition, and if anyone thinks this is easy, then they're wrong. These qualifiers are so tough. That's why the boys are celebrating."
Stats tell the story
Paraguay have made smooth progress to South Africa, equalling their Korea/Japan 2002 qualifying haul of 30 points with two games still to go, winning nine games, drawing three and losing four. Their home form, with seven wins and a solitary defeat, has been imperious. And unlike some of the Paraguay teams that have gone before them, Martino's side possess a genuine cutting edge up front to complement their traditional defensive virtues, with Roque Santa Cruz, Salvador Cabanas and Nelson Haedo Valdez forming a potent front line.
Valdez it was who scored the decisive goal against Argentina, and the Borussia Dortmund striker was understandably thrilled afterwards. "We played with a lot of soul and that's why we won. This win is for everyone and for the people of Paraguay, who needed it so much."
Defender Paulo Da Silva echoed the thoughts of the country's football writers in summing up the strengths of this latest Paraguayan vintage. "For years people spoke about our defensive power but this time we've showed that we are an all-round team with some great players up front. We are very solid but we mustn't get distracted. The World Cup is still a few months away and we need to work hard to arrive in the best possible shape. There are some things we need to improve, but nobody can take away the joy we feel tonight."
Making up for Germany
Back in 2006, Paraguay travelled to Germany with the aim of at least repeating the progress they had made at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002. La Albirroja failed to do themselves justice, however, and fell at the first hurdle after some unconvincing performances, a fate they will be anxious to avoid in South Africa.
"Football's all about the here-and-now and we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves," warned the cautious Martino. "Our next objective is to win the group. There are two things you can aim for when you're a coach: to get results or go down in history. I'm after the latter. We'll see what road we have to take in the future, but for now we're just thinking about finishing as high up the group as we can."
That task looks easier said than done. Paraguay's remaining two matches, Venezuela away and Colombia at home, pit them against two sides still entertaining hopes of taking the play-off place. Yet the Argentinian has every faith in his squad.
"We've got some fantastic players here. Up front we even had the luxury of playing for most of the qualifying competition without Roque (Santa Cruz), who has been injured. Can you imagine Argentina playing for all that time without (Lionel) Messi or Brazil without Kaka? That makes what we've done even more special. I've got very good players and an excellent team of people; that's the key to our success."
With President Fernando Lugo declaring Thursday a national holiday, that success will be celebrated for a few days more it seems. And not without good reason. After reaching only four FIFA World Cup finals between 1930 and 1986, Los Guaraníes have now qualified four times in a row, a record that has everyone, with the exception of Brazil perhaps, sitting up and taking notice of the men in red and white.
Goal-hero Haedo Valdez intends to keep it that way. "Bring on the top dogs. Let's go," he shouted into the night sky, an indication, if it were needed, of Paraguay's continuing hunger for glory.