Keen for the praise to fall on those who earned it most, Antolin Alcaraz positively glowed with gratitude as he savoured Paraguay’s recent form. “The success of this team is down to the coach,” the defender told FIFA.com, with just two months to go before he and his colleagues touch down in South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
Called up for the first time in November 2008, the Club Brugge centre-back owes his stint with La Albirroja to Gerardo Martino, but his respect for Paraguay’s national coach owes little to self-interest. Instead, Alcaraz is as eager as anyone to analyse the reasons why Paraguay enjoyed their best ever FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, having hit the 30-point mark for the first time under the current format. “If the squad is united, with a sense of togetherness and characters who complement each other, as well as a friendship that reaches beyond the pitch, then that’s down to him,” he explained. “Psychologically, he’s very good with the players.”
An ever-present figure in the Argentinian coach’s squad on the road to South Africa, the 28-year-old has become one of Martino’s most fervent supporters. “He made good decisions by making form the most important factor,” said Alcaraz. “He chooses the best players, without hesitating to leave the stars on the bench when they’re not playing so well. He’s also had the intelligence to bring new players into the national team, which gives us more options in case of injury or lack of form among the senior players. He does a huge amount of watching games and finds players no matter what league they’re in, as with Enrique Vera in Ecuador. That’s increased competition for places.”
It is an approach that has clearly worked wonders, with Paraguay clinching ten victories during the qualifiers and ultimately securing themselves a place at the global showcase without too much fuss. However, as they gear up for their fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup finals, Los Guaraníes must now deal with the consequences of their success and meet raised expectations back home.
“Everyone in the country thinks we’ll get past the Round of 16,” said Alcaraz. “Hopes are high because the Paraguayan media sees our group as not very difficult, and we're expected to go through behind Italy.” Despite never having appeared in a previous edition of world football’s leading tournament, the stopper knows better than to assume any opponents will prove straightforward. “There are always surprises at a World Cup,” he added. “Every team that’s qualified is very solid, whether they’re a big name or not. We absolutely have to treat every opponent the same way.”
To help him keep his feet on the ground, the former Beira Mar stopper need only listen to Martino, who will not be taking fellow Group F hopefuls New Zealand and Slovakia lightly. “There are no more easy teams,” said the 47-year-old. “Favourite status has to be earned on the pitch.” Also contributing to the sense of perspective are the worrying question marks over the fitness of Salvador Cabanas, the team’s leading scorer in qualifying with six strikes. “His absence would be a huge loss,” said Alcaraz.
Should Cabanas fail to make the trip, Paraguay can nonetheless call upon some high-quality forwards, with the likes of Roque Santa Cruz, Oscar Cardozo and Nelson Haedo Valdez really marking the current crop out from previous Albirroja generations. “Making the last four is a possibility, but once again we have to be aware of our strengths without overestimating them,” said Alcaraz, who began his career with Racing Club in Argentina. “There’s a lot of confidence in this squad and I know we will go far. How far, I don’t know, but we have what’s required to reach the semi-finals; I’m sure of it.”
Martino’s men will not have to wait long to take an early measure of their potential, as they face world champions Italy in their very first group outing. “I prefer playing them right at the start as opposed to facing them in the last game if they still need points to go through,” concluded Alcaraz. “Taking on Italy in a decisive match for them would be a big ask.” Perhaps, but lining up a Paraguay team soaring with confidence would no doubt prove a big ask for Gli Azzurri too.