Fitness and tougher qualifying are the big reasons South American teams have dominated this FIFA World Cup™ while European sides have struggled, Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino said Monday.
On the eve of Paraguay's Round of 16 showdown with Japan, the Argentinian boss took a hard line when asked how four South American teams could reach the semi-finals while European giants like Italy and England are gone.
"I have no doubt the South American teams have huge difficulties in qualifying," Martino said. "Leaving out Asian and African qualifying, I believe the level of compatability is quite different from one continent to the next." South American teams play a long round-robin tournament while European sides play in smaller groups and knock-out playoffs to determine FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Martino also admires the fitness of the teams behind perennial powerhouses Brazil and Argentina, both already into the quarter-finals. "Brazil and Argentina are always contenders. They come to the World Cup well prepared collectively and individually," he said. "The other three are in good shape. When you are in good condition, the outlook is better.
"Argentina is really showcasing the individual. I haven't seen that from Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. They play more as a team. Bring these players to the World Cup, with Lionel Messi on top of that, it makes a difference."
One South American star missing is Paraguay striker and top scorer Salvador Cabanas, who was shot in the head in a Mexican bar earlier this year. The team called him in his hospital room last weekend. "He's feeling at ease. We sent him a big hug," said Paraguay midfielder Christian Riveros. "We haven't yet felt his absence but we would very much like to have him here. It would be another 'beautiful problem' for our coach deciding who would play."
Paraguay will try to advance past the Round of 16 for the first time, having missed out after reaching the same stage in 1986, 1998 and 2002. "The important thing is to make it to the quarter-finals," added Riveros. "If we make it, we will certainly go down in the history of Paraguay."
Standing in the way of La Albirroja (the White and Red) is a Japanese team that has allowed only two goals, while Paraguay have surrendered only one. "It's really important to score the first goal. It's really decisive in the World Cup," Martino said. "All the teams know that if you give up the first goal, you might be packing your bags. It's necessary to have good nerves."
Martino has bigger goals than simply going deeper than any prior Paraguay side. "It's nothing special that we made it to the round of 16. It's far from my definition of glory," he said. "We came with dreams. We're still in the race."