Paraguay’s progress at this FIFA World Cup™ has been based on an uncompromising defence, currently one of the meanest in world football. Alongside Paulo da Silva, Antolin Alcaraz has been one half of a formidable double act at the heart of that Albirroja back four, and the 27 year-old is now preparing for the game of his life in his country’s quarter-final clash with Spain on Saturday.
This successful South African odyssey is a defining event in the centre-back’s well-travelled career, one that took a while to take off but has now done in spectacular fashion, especially when he made perhaps his most telling contribution to Los Guaraníes’ campaign, scoring a header in his team’s opening match against reigning champions Italy.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA, the Wigan Athletic-bound defender looked forward to his upcoming duel with Spain’s much-vaunted forward line in Johannesburg on Saturday, his shock call-up to the national team and the burgeoning confidence of a Paraguay team that has already gone further than any other side in the country’s history at a FIFA World Cup™.
Given that you have been playing in Belgian football, in one of Europe’s smaller leagues, this FIFA World Cup has given you a great stage for your talents. You scored against Italy and all of a sudden you have been getting a lot of attention. How has that been for you?
Antolin Alcaraz: To be honest, just being in the national team was a surprise for me. I think we had three or four players who joined in the squad just before the World Cup. I was surprised to make the final squad and the fact that I started the game against Italy, and scored our goal, was probably the highpoint of my career so far and something to remember for the rest of my life. To have the confidence of the coach behind you and to get into the starting eleven was something special. I wasn’t only unknown on the world stage. This has also been a chance for me to make my name in my own country.
As a defender, you must be looking forward in particular to the game against Spain, and going up against Fernando Torres, David Villa, Andres Iniesta and the rest?
Not especially. I’m going to put in exactly the same effort as in the other games. In fact, probably more so, given the situation and the team we’re playing. Any footballer always wants to play at the highest level and to play against teams like Spain, which are full of quality. As a defender that is the highest level you can play at.
Is there a lot of confidence in the Paraguay camp that you can beat Spain?
We have the same confidence that we have shown in every game so far. We always face up to challenges in the same way, thinking that it could be our last match. And we have to go out and give everything just as if we were playing in the Final itself. That’s our mentality. We go out onto the pitch, we put everything in and we see what happens. If we get a result, great. If our opponents are better than us, that’s another story. That’s exactly how we’ve got this far, so why not think about winning? We always have hope and we will do our best.
How would you describe the mentality of your team?
What you see out on the pitch is only a small part of what we do together every day as a team. We have a fantastic team spirit. I could feel it as soon as I came into the squad. And new players are made to feel very welcome right from the start. That’s why I would say that we stick together for the most part and not only when we have a match. I would need a long time to do this team justice and sometimes words aren’t enough.
How would you describe coach Gerardo Martino and the role he has played in this campaign?
Although I’ve only spent a short time with him, I would say he is a great person and not only because he gave me my chance with the national team (laughs). Emotionally and professionally, what he does for the team is beyond the call of duty. He makes us feel good and he goes way beyond his job as a coach, in that he makes you feel part of a family. He is more like a father figure to the players. And he helps us to learn about life as well. We all get on very well with him and the rest of the coaching staff.
We have the same confidence that we have shown in every game so far. We always face up to challenges in the same way, thinking that it could be our last match.