As Paraguay attempt to reach the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals for the first time in their history, their Argentinian coach Gerardo Martino has been speaking to FIFA about his team’s exploits in South Africa. The 47-year-old has led the South Americans since 2007 and in the eyes of many, his clear thinking and positive attitude have been two of the major factors in guiding Los Guaraníes to the brink of history.
Such is the high esteem in which he is held by his players, Martino has successfully managed to change La Albirroja’s style of play from his early days, and the squad has been quick to acknowledge the coach’s foresight in helping them become a potent force in South American football. Now more aggressive and adventurous in attack, but with the same miserly defence, the Paraguayans are dangerous opponents for any team in South Africa.
Attacking adventure and defensive discipline helped Martino’s men cut a swathe through South American qualifying and they have not stopped there. In the first stage they topped Group F, leaving reigning champions Italy in their wake, and they have now set their sights on glory in the knockout stages. But Paraguay's opponents in Tuesday’s last 16 game, Japan, have FIFA World Cup ambitions of their own.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA, Martino spoke openly of his respect for Japan and the satisfaction he gets from working with such a talented crop of Paraguayan players. The feeling of respect between coach and players is, it seems, mutual.
FIFA: This is a historic opportunity for Paraguay. How do you see the game going?
Gerardo Martino: Yes, it’s a great opportunity. Personally I think we can make history in one of two ways. Either we play well, really well, even if we lose, or we just win regardless of the performance.
Japan present a very distinct challenge, and play in a markedly different way to the teams you faced in the group stage. What are you expecting from them?
Every team plays in a different way. The thing is, this is the first game where we know that the winner takes all. That changes things completely because as well as dealing with the opposition, we will have to keep our nerve.
And what are you expecting from your own team?
I want us to be aggressive and to win back possession quickly. I want us to be positive in possession as well because sometimes when we play we have problems in that regard. We need to improve that side of our game. But putting pressure on them to win the ball back is key. We need to get at them, and fortunately that positive aggression is something we have in our team.
Speaking to the players, they all say that you give them a lot of confidence in themselves, and the belief that they can beat anybody on their day. Is confidence an important part of your approach?
I am always honest with my players from the outset. I speak from the heart when I analyse their strengths and weaknesses and that means that I can speak to them easily. It’s true that there are teams with better players than us but I also think that we have tremendous team spirit something which, in my opinion, can balance out better technical ability on the part of other teams.
After a long time in Paraguayan football, you know the players very well. How would you describe the typical Paraguayan player?
Someone who brings a lot to the team and works hard. They are unselfish, they don’t play for themselves, they are dedicated, not only in games but also in training. I’ve always said that the typical Paraguayan footballer gives a coach self-belief, because they play with such intensity that you can’t help but feel that you really have prepared them very well. In truth, that doesn’t have anything to do with the Paraguayan FA, but simply to do with the attitude of the players. And you see that out on the pitch. Every single one of them puts his ego to one side to fight for the team as a whole.
That work ethic can only come from unity within the squad, and that seems to be the hallmark of your team. How have you managed to achieve that in only one month, and in a different country?
It’s something that we emphasise to the players. The FA gives the players the very best. We don’t want to think that any of us, from the medical staff to the admin staff, have got anything wrong. We know that we have the country’s best players here with us and so we have to treat them accordingly. When we first got together we spoke to them a lot about unity and the fact that we would be together for 60 days. We knew that a few things would crop up, and that we would have to sort everything out amongst the squad. The conversation we had with the players was very positive although we had to see them put our plans into practice. And they have done that to a degree that has gone way beyond my expectations.