Ask anyone to name the revelation of the current South American qualifiers for 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and the answer will unquestionably be Paraguay. After winning five and losing just one of their opening eight fixtures, the increasingly self-assured Guaraníes lead the way in the regional preliminaries, ahead of traditional giants Brazil and Argentina.
One might assume, therefore, that the bulk of the Paraguayan players are plying their trade in the top European leagues, but that is curiously not the case. A closer look at Gerardo Martino's talented group reveals the destination of choice for many of his leading charges continues to be Mexico.
Two weeks ago, when Paraguay consolidated their lead in the South American standings with an important home win over Venezuela, the first name on the scoresheet was that of Mexican-based Cristian Riveros. Yet the Cruz Azul midfielder is far from unique in this respect. Of the 18 players Martino called up for the fixture, no fewer than seven are based in Mexico or have been in the past, and that is excluding their talismanic striker Salvador Cabanas, who has been out injured for America for the past month.
The other names run right the way through the squad. Defenders Julio Manzur, Carlos Bonet, Paulo Da Silva, Dario Veron and Denis Caniza form the backbone of the Mexican legion, alongside the aforementioned Riveros and striker Dante Lopez. All of these are integral members of the Albirroja party and key men with their respective sides in the Mexican championship.
Success on the world stage
This exodus to North America has coincided with one of the most successful eras in the history of Paraguayan football, one that has seen them participate in the last three FIFA World Cups and reach the Round of 16 on two occasions. It has only been in the last ten years or so that the 'Mexican revolution' has truly become a major factor in the Guaraní game. The first big name to head north was goalkeeper Ruben Ruiz Diaz, who was soon followed by strikers Julio Cesar Yegros and Jose Saturnino Cardozo, the latter almost unanimously regarded as the best foreign player to grace Mexican football in the last 20 years.
The trio represented their country at France 1998, and after the tournament Denis Caniza, Jorge Campos and Hugo Brizuela followed in their footsteps. Moreover, of the squad that participated at Korea/Japan 2002, eight players had left their mark on Mexican football, while the corresponding group at Germany 2006 had five members who were playing there at the time of the finals, and another quintet who would go on to do so after the competition.
So what is the reason for this phenomenon? Denis Caniza, who played for more than five seasons in Mexico before returning to his homeland, offered an explanation: "When I first arrived I wasn't that savvy, but my coach Fernando Quirarte (at Santos Laguna) taught me a lot and made me a better player. ," he said.
In general, the standard there is high, and players get every chance to progress. I'm very grateful for what Mexico gave me
In addition, the physical conditioning that comes with playing in Mexico is unquestionably a factor. With most of Mexico's cities above sea level, players accustomed to performing at these heights are at less of a disadvantage when taking on teams in other high-altitude destinations like Ecuador and Bolivia. As the coach Martino put it: "There are several members of the national team squad who are used to playing (at altitude), which means they have less problems dealing with this than those who only play at sea level."
Whatever the motives, there is no sign of a slowdown in the trend, especially given the continued success of those making the move. Among those tipped to become the next Mexico-based Albirroja internationals are midfielder Enrique Vera and strikers Freddy Bareiro, Pablo Zeballos and Ariel Bogado, who is currently the top scorer in the Mexican league with Atlas and a player who Gerardo Martino has been fulsome in his praise of recently.
The mix of Guaraní talent and Azteca schooling has clearly paid dividends in the form of rock-solid defenders, tenacious midfielders and clinical forwards. Anyone still in doubt about the value of the relationship need only ask Paraguay's South American rivals, who continue to suffer at the hands of their Mexican legion.