Having grown accustomed to reaching FIFA World Cups™ in recent times, Paraguay’s present situation is unfamiliar, as their qualifying hopes for Brazil 2014 hang by a thread. It is almost 20 years since La Albirroja last failed to appear at FIFA's flagship event, when a draw with Peru in Lima excluded them from USA 1994.
Not only have Paraguay participated in the last four editions of the event, they have twice progressed to the Round of 16 and have also made it to the quarter-finals. That best-ever achievement came at South Africa 2010, where, under the guidance of Argentinian coach Gerardo Martino, they had Spain on the ropes before being eliminated.
Any suggestions that luck had played a part in Paraguay’s success were answered a year later when they finished runners-up at the Copa America 2011. However, few could have predicted that Martino’s departure would precipitate such a dramatic downturn, with largely the same squad of players now bottom of the South American qualifying group for Brazil 2014 with just eight points from 11 matches.
“It’s a very strange situation for us, but in football you have to tackle these things head on,” Paraguay captain Paulo Da Silva told FIFA.com. “It’s so frustrating as Paraguay are one of the strongest sides in South America, even if the numbers don’t show it.”
The veteran centre-back, who currently laces his boots for Mexican side Pachuca, is well-placed to speak with such authority. After making his senior international debut in 2000, the current qualifying campaign is his fourth, while he has played at two FIFA World Cups and racked up 111 appearances for Paraguay. The 33-year-old hit that historic number in February this year, making him his country’s most capped player of all time. “It’s not something I’ve been able to enjoy yet, even though I overtook my idol Carlos Gamarra,” he said. “I would happily give away ten of my games if it meant Paraguay made it to the World Cup.”
The Asuncion native is unsure how the side has ended up in its present predicament. “You always think about what you used to do and what you’ve stopped doing. In the past we were a strong, aggressive side who were dangerous at set-pieces and created lots of goalscoring chances. Now we’re trying to rediscover all that. We haven’t played badly, we just haven’t been consistent. We feel like we’re a good match for all our opponents. It’s difficult to understand our situation given the players we’ve got and the excellent squad we’ve put together.”
Yet Da Silva, who has plied his trade in Spain, Italy and Argentina, does not shy away from reality. “It’s a not a word I like using, but I agree with those who say it would be a failure if we didn’t play in the World Cup our neighbours are hosting. We know our opponents still respect us and we’re not going to just let our reputation slip away. It’d be great if we can turn things around, but if not, we’ll go out fighting and we won’t give up until the end.”
All or nothing
With just 15 points left to play for, Da Silva is well aware of the size of the challenge ahead. “We need to win. We know that in order to reach the World Cup we have to be at the top of our game in all five matches and even then it might not be enough. But we can’t just hope other results go in our favour, the only way to put the other teams under pressure is with victories.”
While Paraguay’s No14 refused to be drawn on whether the fact that four of the five remaining fixtures will be played in Asuncion will be an advantage or not, Da Silva is clear on how the side need to proceed. “If we want to give ourselves the chance of going into our final game with qualifying still possible, then we should focus solely on our next opponent Chile. Thinking beyond that is pointless, as we have no margin for error.”
Indeed, Da Silva is full of praise for La Roja, who recently appointed Jorge Sampaoli as their new coach. “They’re a good team. Changes in management always mean new players get brought in, but that won’t affect their structure as most of their squad play in good leagues. The key will be keeping possession so that we control the game.” If history is anything to go by, it bodes well that Da Silva netted his only two goals in 43 qualifying matches in a 3-0 victory over Chile in Santiago en route to South Africa 2010.
The defender, who admires fellow-centre backs Sergio Ramos and Thiago Silva, is convinced that Paraguayan football has a bright future, irrespective of the outcome of Brazil 2014 qualifying. While content to be playing in Mexico, Da Silva has not ruled out a return a league “more competitive than ever” in his homeland. Nevertheless, he recognises his days with the national team are drawing to a close. “Today I feel good but I can’t set my sights on 2018 as a player. I would never step down as it means so much to me, but I would like to talk to the coaching staff and managerial team to see how I can still help.”
However, Da Silva’s focus swiftly returns to the more pressing matter of Brazil 2014. “Even though we haven’t won two consecutive games for a long time, it’d be a mistake to write us off. We’ll fight until the last game because not going to the World Cup doesn’t bear thinking about. The squad we have gives us reason to keep believing and I’m also very stubborn. I refuse to throw in the towel."