Pitched against Spain in their very first FIFA World Cup™ quarter-final, Paraguay spurned several opportunities to extend their run at South Africa 2010. Punished for their profligacy by David Villa, the vanquished South Americans held a lengthy dressing-room inquest, raking over the ashes of a game that could so easily have had a different ending.
Though grim-faced as they departed from Ellis Park Stadium, the Paraguayans could at least take solace from the fact they competed well against the reigning European champions, coming within an ace of reaching the last four. Indeed, that Gerardo Martino’s side should be so disappointed at going so far is an indication of just how much they have developed under his tutelage.
Paraguay’s main objective when they touched down in South Africa was to make it to the last eight for the first time, a goal reached following a typically tense penalty decider against Japan in the Round of 16. Prior to that, the ambitious Guaraníes had come out on top in Group F, a berth that defending world champions and eventual section also-rans Italy were expected to occupy.
Looking back, then, Martino’s men have every reason to be feeling content with themselves as they prepare to head home. Yet, as FIFA.com found out when speaking exclusively to Paraguay’s departing heroes, the prevailing mood is one of frustration. “It’s important, of course it is, and we are proud of what we achieved. But we feel as if we failed to finish the job off,” said a rueful Roque Santa Cruz, bemoaning a sad end to his third FIFA World Cup finals. “We wanted more but it wasn’t to be. That’s football.”
The regret felt by the striker was perhaps understandable. He and his team-mates never looked overawed against a side tipped by many for the title. Unyielding at the back, the South Americans turned in another tactically flawless display until Villa appeared on the scene to pierce their rearguard for the first time in over four hours of football.
Santa Cruz and Co also looked menacing up front, carving out a handful of opportunities, including a penalty early in the second half. Benfica's Oscar Cardozo was the man entrusted with the spot-kick, but after slotting home in the shoot-out against the Japanese, all he could do on this occasion was send the ball into the arms of a grateful Iker Casillas. “It really hurts to be going home like this,” added the Manchester City centre-forward. “We thought it was an open game and either side could have won it.”
Asked if he had a message for the people back home, fellow striker Nelson Valdez was almost lost for words: “To be honest I don’t know what to say. Maybe we’ve left everything we had out on the pitch. At least we can look each other in the face and say that we were a great team.”
The collective spirit that the Paraguay players spoke of at length in the build-up to the competition was apparent throughout their stay in South Africa, never more so than in their two knockout games. “I feel very proud of having been a member of this group,” continued Valdez. “Let’s hope the team sticks together for the next World Cup.”
Whether that will be the case or not remains to be seen. Nine of the members of the Guaraní squad have already turned 30 and Santa Cruz has his doubts about their ability to make it to Brazil 2014: “We have a lot of players who might not get the chance to play in another World Cup. That makes this even harder to take.”
The architect of Paraguay’s eye-catching qualification campaign and their equally impressive run in South Africa was their Argentinian coach. During his spell in charge, Martino has worked hard to strengthen the bonds between the players and instil a more attacking approach, while also bringing in fresh young talent to increase competition for places.
The gaggle of new faces includes striker Cardozo, the top scorer in the UEFA Europa League and the Portuguese league last season; versatile front-man Edgar Benitez, who is now making a name for himself in Mexico; and Rodolfo Gamarra, the baby of the squad and the country’s latest sensation. At the back, meanwhile, the towering Antolin Alcaraz looks to have a fine international career ahead of him.
Having ventured into unchartered territory this year, La Albirroja now have every intention of kicking on and reaching new goals. “Paraguay are coming on so much and that’s important for everyone,” said midfielder Jonathan Santana, sounding a note of optimism. “I think everyone will treat us with respect now and that’s a legacy we can hand on to the younger players.”