Though they have been a long time coming, the good times have finally returned for Club Nacional of Paraguay. The club that nurtured the country’s most famous footballing son, Arsenio Erico, enjoy legendary status on the national scene despite going 63 years without winning a league title, a run that only ended in 2009.
Since then it has been one success after another for El Tricolor, who now await the biggest challenge of their 110-year history: a Copa Libertadores semi-final against Uruguay’s Defensor Sporting, the first leg of which takes place on Tuesday.
If there is one man who has played a central role in their recent renaissance, then it is Gustavo Morinigo, firstly as an elegant midfielder with a gift for arriving late in the box, and then – since 2012, shortly after hanging up his boots – as a demanding coach who has got Nacional swimming against the tide in a country known for its uncompromising, direct football.
“Nacional don’t play the kind of football you usually see in Paraguay,” Morinigo told FIFA.com. “It’s a new system that we brought in a while ago and which is based on my beliefs that football should be played on the ground, as a team and at speed. We believe in working hard but playing well too. We are nothing but the result of everyone’s hard work.”
The 37-year-old, who played for Paraguay at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Malaysia 1997 and at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea Japan™, added that his move into coaching was a natural step following a playing career ended by a chronic knee injury.
“I always felt I could achieve big things but maybe not so quickly,” he said, with not a hint of arrogance.
His achievement has been in transmitting his innate confidence to his players, a vital ingredient in their run to the last four, which has come despite them advancing from the group phase with the worst record of the 16 qualifiers.
“We weren’t that bothered about the position we qualified in,” he said. “In the last 16 we came up against Velez (Sarsfield), the best team in the group phase, and we believed in ourselves. The belief that we could take on anyone has given the team confidence, which is the reason why we’ve fought our way this far. There’s also the fact that we’ve learned the lessons of past disappointments, which hit the team hard.”
Though an admirer of Gerardo Tata Martino, Morinigo is essentially a self-taught coach: “I have my own style and I try to work on it without looking too closely at what the rest are doing.”
Communication is also an important part of the Morinigo method: “I really see the coach as a leader. I work on tactics but also on day-to-day psychology. We chat a lot to the players and talk things through with them so they can see what we’re doing. Laying the law down isn’t really the way things are done these days.”
The ex-midfielder works hard on infusing the players with self-belief, while also ensuring they keep their feet firmly on the ground. At this stage of proceedings, it would be tempting for an inexperienced side like Nacional to become distracted and let thoughts turn to the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014 and a possible meeting with Real Madrid. With a coach like Morinigo around, however, there is no chance of that happening.
“There’s no point in dreaming big,” said Morinigo. “We tell the players there’s no such dream. It’s totally off limits and so far away for us. If we think too far ahead, we might stumble over what’s right in front of us, and what’s right in front of us at the moment are Defensor, who are the best side of all time as far as I’m concerned. That’s how we’re looking at them in our preparations.”
Like Nacional, their opponents in Tuesday’s first leg at the Estadio Arsenio Erico are also standing on the brink of history, having never won the competition before. Intriguingly, fellow semi-finalists San Lorenzo and Bolivar are in exactly the same position.
In the eyes of the Academia coach, that is a problem: “It’s harder to play against sides that have the same hunger for glory as we do. You can have history and a famous jersey but there no’s respect for things like that anymore. It’s happened in the Libertadores and it happened in the World Cup, with Costa Rica for example.
“That’s why we’re going to have a tough job against our opponents and why they’re going to have a hard job against us. All four teams have the same one-in-four chance of winning the Copa.”
A long road for La Albirroja
The Paraguayan national team is a recent victim of the hunger of supposedly lesser sides. Having established themselves as a genuine force in South America by qualifying for the World Cup four times in a row, La Albirroja entered a transitional phase after South Africa 2010 and failed to make it to Brazil 2014.
That setback has triggered a period of reflection in Paraguayan football, and in contemplating the problem the methodical Morinigo believes there is no other solution but to plan for the future and work hard towards long-term goals.
“It’s a question of making the right decisions and working from solid foundations,” he explained. “We can’t just think about the Chile 2015 Copa America. We have to give some thought to the side that can take us to the World Cup. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to happen just like that.
“We have very few people playing abroad at the moment and excelling in their leagues, and it’s so much harder to set defining standards when you don’t have values that stand out on their own.”