“The team’s success is down to the coach,” commented Paraguay defender Antolin Alcaraz in an interview with FIFA.com on his side’s qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Those sentiments are no doubts shared by Alcaraz’s team-mates and Albirroja fans, who have nothing but admiration for Gerardo Martino.
Paraguay made fairly smooth progress through the CONMEBOL qualifying competition, finishing in third place ahead of Argentina and Uruguay, having led the group for a lengthy period. In the process, they collected 33 points from their 18 games, three more than they amassed on the road to Korea/Japan 2002 and five more than in qualifying for Germany 2006.
When it was all over, their 47-year-old Argentinian coach identified the 5-1 defeat of Ecuador in November 2007 as their best performance in the group, while describing the 1-0 win over his compatriots in Asuncion as the game that sealed their place in the world finals.
Not surprisingly, Martino was a satisfied man when the competition came to an end and is upbeat about their chances in South Africa. “We have some of the finest players in the world,” he said. “The important thing is to be at our best when the tournament gets underway and to have all our leading players available for selection.”
Paraguay partly owed their success to Martino’s ability to bring in talented youngsters and meld them with the group of seasoned performers that forms the nucleus of the side. That combination is one he expects to flourish in June: “It will be a great experience for all the young players. It’s a wonderful opportunity for them.”
Known in the game as El Tata, the discreet yet astute Martino brought untried players into the squad in a bid to generate competition for places and keep the team fresh throughout a long and arduous campaign. The approach paid off, as his did his switch away from Paraguay’s traditionally defensive tactics to a more enterprising attack-oriented style, without it undermining their trademark resolve at the back.
A talented attacking midfielder during his playing days in the 1990s, Martino first came to prominence with Newell’s Old Boys. His coach there was one Marcelo Bielsa, who has had a profound influence on his coaching career, which began in the backwaters of Argentinian league football. He arrived in Paraguay in 2002, where he took charge of Libertad in two separate spells and Cerro Porteno, winning a string of league championships with both clubs.
He replaced Anibal Ruiz in the Albirroja hotseat in February 2007, reprising his success at club level by guiding Paraguay back to the FIFA World Cup finals.