One of those players whose contribution often goes unremarked by fans and headline-makers alike, versatile Paraguayan defensive midfielder Cristian Riveros is a coach's dream. And in recent years Riveros, who plies his trade in Mexico for Cruz Azul, has grown into a key figure at the heart of his country's national team - including inspirational performances in the Albirroja's inexorable march to a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
As his side prepare to retread the qualifying trail with away matches against Uruguay and Ecuador on 28 March and 1 April respectively, the gifted Guaraní spoke to FIFA.com about Paraguay's spectacular start to the South American Zone qualifying campaign and their goals for the future.
Off to a flyer
Firmly expected to finish behind traditional regional superpowers Brazil and Argentina before qualifying began, with ten matches played Paraguay are currently in first place, six and seven points clear of the Auriverde and Albiceleste respectively. "We're very happy, to be honest. I'm sure people outside the camp didn't expect this but we had faith in the work we've been doing with the coaching staff," said Riveros. "We were looking forward to enjoying a good campaign and now we're looking forward to sealing qualification."
"I think that the main reason for these results is the squad that has been assembled. Paraguay have some great players performing at a high level abroad, in Europe and in Mexico, but we also have some great human beings," added Riveros of the group under the command of Argentinian strategist Gerardo Martino. "We've all bonded pretty well and that's why we've formed a very united, very compact squad. I think that's Paraguay's secret at the moment."
Indeed, El Tata Martino has transformed Paraguay's fortunes since taking charge in February 2007, with Riveros choosing to heap particular praise on his coach's man-management skills: "He's one of those coaches who really focuses on the human side of each player. For example, among the 25 or 30 of us in the squad there's no jealousy from those who aren't among the 11 first-choice players. We're all happy with our roles and that's very healthy."
One of the most consistent performers so far in South American qualifying, Riveros chose to divert praise away from himself and onto the efforts of the Paraguay set-up. "It's a real honour to be in the national team. It's priceless. And on top of that things have gone very well for me," said Riveros, who has appeared in nine of his team's ten qualifiers so far. "The new coaching staff gave me the chance to develop, to be out on the pitch. Fortunately I've been able to show that consistency in each game and up to now I've taken my opportunities."
"The game against Argentina in Buenos Aires and the one against Brazil in Paraguay were very important to the fans," said Riveros when quizzed about which results have meant most to the Albirroja faithful. "The latter match in particular. Brazil came here with all their star names but Paraguay stood firm. We've not dropped a single point at home thus far and that's another thing that brings us ever closer to sealing qualification."
For Riveros, however, his highlights are of a more personal nature. "(My favourite match) was the Ecuador game, no doubt about it," he said with a grin. "Not just because we won but because I scored twice and was the hero!"
"First of all I want to qualify, because we've not guaranteed our ticket yet, even though we're very close," concluded the player, in regard to his and Paraguay's goals for the future. "Later on, once in South Africa, we'll try to improve on our previous performances (at FIFA World Cup finals). It would be extraordinary if we could go beyond the last 16, so our aim is to improve on that and go as far as we possibly can. "