After a 12-year absence from the showpiece event, Paraguay returned to the FIFA World Cup finals at France 1998, led by their inspirational shot-stopper, Jose Luis Chilavert. Nearly ten years on, and with the legendary custodian now retired, the Guaraní outfit are familiar faces at world football's top table, having racked up three consecutive finals' appearances.
Paraguay have always enjoyed a healthy reputation on the South American scene, thanks to their defensive solidity, superb aerial ability and plentiful supply of powerful front-runners. That said, with the exception of Copa America wins in 1953 and 1979, the Albirroja have struggled to convert these undoubted qualities into silverware. After reaching three of the first six FIFA World Cups, they went on to miss the next six in a row. Eventually emerging from the international wilderness in time for Mexico 1986, the feats of Julio Cesar Romero and Roberto Cabanas helped guide Paraguay through the group stages, only to lose 3-0 to England in the second round.
The turning point would arrive in the late 1990s, coinciding with the emergence of a golden generation of Paraguayan footballers. The likes of Chilavert, Celso Ayala, Carlos Gamarra, Roberto Acuna and Jose Saturnino Cardozo steered the Guaraníes to second place behind Argentina in qualifying for France 1998, reigning champions Brazil having qualified automatically. Four years on, on the road to Korea/Japan 2002, Paraguay finished in fourth place, forcing rivals Uruguay into a play-off against Australia, a situation which repeated itself ahead of Germany 2006. However, the Albirroja would find luck in short supply on each of these finals' appearances.
In France as in Korea/Japan, Paraguay's found their progress barred in the Round of 16 by one of the eventual finalists. In 1998, Aime Jacquet's Bleus won via a Laurent Blanc Golden Goal, while four years later an 88th-minute Oliver Neuville strike edged Rudi Voller's Germany through. On German soil in 2006, then coach Anibal Ruiz was unable to guide his side out of a Group B containing England, Sweden and Trinidad and Tobago.
In the wake of that early exit, the Paraguayan Football Association decided to hire Argentinian tactician Gerardo Martino, who boasts an excellent record in Guaraní football, ahead of the qualifiers for South Africa 2010. Faced with the need to bring about wholesale changes in an ageing squad, El Tata has enjoyed mixed results thus far. The Copa America 2007 in Venezuela got off to an encouraging start, the Albirroja beating Colombia 5-0 and the USA 3-1, before a narrow 1-0 reverse against group winners Argentina. Yet their campaign fell spectacularly off the rails in the quarter-finals, suffering a humiliating 6-0 rout at the hands of Hugo Sanchez's Mexico. Even so, a FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign is a different matter altogether, and Martino's charges can confidently look back on 10 years of solid results as they prepare for the challenge ahead.
A positive start to their South Africa 2010 qualifiers can confirm that their preparations have been solid. Before the summer break, Paraguay had roared to the top of the South American table with more points than regional royalty Brazil and Argentina.