An iconic figure for Paraguay during his playing days, former right-back Francisco Arce is back in the national set-up as Los Guaraníes’ head coach after the departure of Argentinian supremo Gerardo Martino. And though El Chiqui has only a few years’ coaching experience, the skill and passion with which he defended La Albirroja jersey should ensure him a warm welcome from the Paraguayan faithful.
Though unable to paint the full picture, the bare statistics do give a good idea of the impact Arce had during an international career that spanned 12 of his 14 years in the pro game. Featuring a total of 61 caps and five goals, the defender appeared in two FIFA World Cups™, three FIFA World Cup qualifying phases, a Men’s Olympic Football Tournament and three editions of the Copa America.
“I’m really happy to be back, and it feels like I’ve never been away,” the 40-year-old told FIFA.com. “Of course, I’m in a different role now but I’ve prepared thoroughly for this. I’m ready for the challenge.”
Strength of his convictions
This confidence in his own ability has marked his career since as far back as 1991, when he made his debut for homeland outfit Cerro Porteno. Wasting little time in cementing a first-team spot at El Ciclón, Arce won three domestic titles before making the move to Brazilian football – a place where quality full-backs are in no short supply.
Far from shying away from the challenge, the set-piece expert embraced his new surroundings and continued to rack up silverware in the colours of Gremio and Palmeiras. A Copa Libertadores winner at both clubs, it should come as no surprise that Arce was voted into a Latin America select XI for seven years in a row.
Within two years of hanging up his boots, the ex-defender was starting his ascent up the coaching ladder. Close to taking charge of Paraguay’s U-20 squad when Martino was handed the senior reins in February 2007, Arce instead honoured a promise made to Sergio Markarian to be his assistant at Asuncion outfit Libertad. The Uruguayan strategist was the man who handed Arce his debut at Cerro all those years ago, and the new Paraguay boss has stated Markarian is “almost like a father to me."
I’m really happy to be back, and it feels like I’ve never been away.
Even so, Arce remained on the radar of both the national-team officials and Martino, who ended up recommending him as his replacement. Before that though came his first post as head coach, when he took the helm at humble second-tier outfit Rubio Nu in 2008. Not only did Arce take his charges into the top flight at the first attempt, but once there he ensured they held their own against the traditional heavyweights of the Paraguayan game.
“It’s more important to describe how you are as a person: I’m frank in my dealings with others, I’m honest and responsible,” he said, when asked to outline his coaching style. “That’s what I was like as a boy, as a youth and during my whole career, and it’s not changed. I really believe that you have to be able to separate work from friendship, which is going to be key for me now because I’ll be coaching some players that used to be my team-mates.
“In footballing terms, I like teams that are practical, keep things simple and want to play good football: which is how I was as a player,” continued the father of three, who was born on 2 April 1971. “I started out at a club with that philosophy and enjoyed eight successful years in Brazil where they had a similar ideology. Along with my coaching staff we put this into practice at Rubio Nu and got good results. We’re not going to change now.”
Part of one of the finest defensive quartets in Paraguayan history, alongside Celso Ayala, Denis Caniza and Carlos Gamarra, Arce went on to outline his preference for a four-man rearguard: “I’m not a slave to any particular tactical system though we’ll stick with four at the back to start with. The idea is to work on a certain playing concept: good distribution from the back, confidence in possession and creativity in midfield and attacking areas.”
The incoming boss also felt that Los Guaraníes need to add certain, specific strings to their collective bow. “People are generally aware, and even Martino used to say so, that the national team needs more ball-players,” continued Arce. “Paraguayan football is very direct, teams are used to bypassing midfield and trying to win games using pure grit or specific in-game situations, such as set pieces or via the aerial route.
“In modern football you need to be able to conserve energy by keeping possession, and that’s something we’ll try to introduce. It’s not an easy or difficult task, it’s somewhere in between. Fortunately, the quality of the players we have will make everything simpler.”
And though Arce will have forwards of the calibre of Nelson Haedo Valdez, Lucas Barrios, Roque Santa Cruz and Oscar Cardozo at his disposal, he is not getting carried away. “Strikers can’t win matches by themselves, what happened at the Copa America proved that,” he said, with La Albirroja reaching the final on Argentinian soil despite failing to win a single game in regulation or extra time. “Strikers depend on the system of play. The idea is to create the right conditions for them to bring all their quality to bear inside or near the box.”
El Chiqui will be keen to get said system in place as early as possible in the qualifying phase of Brazil 2014, with the available South American Zone berths sure to be fiercely contested even in the absence of A Seleção.
“I know all about pressure and how, if you let it, it can affect your very soul,” concluded Arce, on his mission to secure Paraguay’s fifth consecutive trip to the FIFA World Cup. “That’s why I’d say to you that we’re doing fine. We may be lacking in experience but we’ve got complete faith in the staff and players.”