Deep down, Francisco Arce knew he would get the opportunity to coach his country, Paraguay, once again. He may not have expected his second chance to come around quite so quickly though, just four years after the abrupt end to his first spell in charge and with La Albirroja in the middle of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. So, how does it feel to have the chance for… revenge?
“I’m not a fan of that word,” Arce told FIFA.com, in the 45-year-old’s first interview since he retook the helm. “Revenge suggests getting payback for something negative, or some kind of reprisal. And although we feel that we had to leave too soon, we don’t certainly don’t harbour any feelings like that.
“That’s why I prefer to talk about this as a second chance,” continued El Chiqui, who was moved aside in June 2012 after a defeat to Bolivia in La Paz in Brazil 2014 qualifying, just 13 months and 12 matches after being handed the role to widespread acclaim.
“We’re happy and ready to continue a journey which started well, but which we weren’t able to conclude with a higher tally of points,” said Arce, in reference to the total of just four points that Paraguay had in the South American standings when he was dismissed. The conclusion of the story is well-known: La Albirroja’s run of four consecutive appearances at the World Cup, starting at France 1998, came to an end.
“It’s irrefutable that we were responsible, we were in charge for five of the qualifiers… And of course I felt guilty,” he admitted. “But that didn’t stop us from following the World Cup; we’re professionals and that’s our job. We’ve also been keeping tabs on all the Paraguayan players since we left.”
Arce modestly neglected to mention the key part he had as a player in that France 1998 squad, perhaps in a bid not to cloud people’s judgement, though his fond memories of that time make his return that much sweeter. “I was a national team player, but even those members of the coaching staff that weren’t have a huge bond with the flag, the country and the shirt. That’s why it’s nice to be embracing the challenge once more.”
Bouncing back in style
Yet the emotions surrounding his return have not blinded him to past errors. “For example, we didn’t handle a few human relations issues very well,” said Arce. “Not with the players, but in the jousting you get between the press, the public and such a sensitive position as this one. We’ve now got more patience and the ability to process things better when it comes to taking decisions or reacting to things.
“We know that we did certain things wrong, some of which were well-intentioned, while there were other things that we didn’t even have time to put into place,” continued Arce, clearly keen to get a weight off his chest. “But there were other things that did achieve what they were supposed to.”
Such as? “Well, like holding weekly training sessions with domestic-based players,” he responded immediately. “That enabled players like Victor Ayala, Richard Ortiz, Pablo Aguilar, Federico Santander, Bruno Valdez and Miguel Samudio, who are now national squad regulars, to establish themselves. And there are other lads who made their debuts under us, such as Derlis Gonzalez, Miguel Almiron and [Jorge] El Conejo Benitez.”
Why does Arce believe that the Paraguayan Football Association (AFP) have once again put their trust in him? “We bounced back right here in Paraguay, without seeing the need to run off elsewhere as if we were trying to escape from something. We went back to Rubio Nu, our home, and the job we did there led to big clubs like Cerro Porteno and Olimpia, where it’s not easy to coach, putting their faith in us.
"We won titles with both, and the country’s sporting circles realised that our methods worked. That’s why we’ve got this second chance, which is not easy to get in football, particularly at national team level after such a short space of time.”
Analysis and objectives
How much have Arce and his staff changed over these past four years? “We’ve grown up and gained more experience, but our ideals are the same: dedication to attractive football, the need to play the game with a focus on the ball, not on space. We have to be intelligent and get results, but while playing good football whenever possible.”
Arce also gave his verdict on recent changing trends in the Paraguayan domestic game. “There are now more teams that try to play good football and they’ve all got Paraguayan coaches. That’s positive for our methodology,” added Arce, chosen for a role for which, after the departure of Argentinian supremo Ramon Diaz, Colombian Reinaldo Rueda was also in the running.
The new man in charge took the time to praise Diaz for having re-taught the national side “to eke out results”, as well as for placing Victor Ayala in charge of taking dead balls. “We’re going to do a lot of work on that,” went on Arce. “We’ve got good set-piece takers again and players who are aerially strong in both boxes. It’s another weapon in our arsenal and one which has laid the foundations for qualifying for World Cups for previous generations.”
In their bid to get back to the World Cup stage at Russia 2018, Paraguay are currently seventh in the ten-team zone after six matches, though only one point shy of fourth – the final direct qualifying berth. “I know the lads and they know us. It’s just like picking up where we left off four years ago,” said El Chiqui, who is not concerned about the lack of time to work with his players before September’s qualifying double header.
First up are Chile, the 2015 & 2016 Copa America winners, at home, then comes a visit to joint leaders Uruguay. “They’re tough but exciting games, the kind we’ve always enjoyed, with plenty at stake,” he said, before noting what he feels will be key to a successful campaign.
“We’ll need to pick up some points away, of course, but we need to recover that sense of fear that visiting teams always felt in the Estadio Defensores del Chaco [in the capital Asuncion]. Our priority is making the fans’ support count.”
But how much patience will those same fans show Arce and his staff should things start to unravel again? “I’ve put that [first spell] behind me and am starting afresh and I think the fans will too,” he concluded. “We know what we’re capable of doing and how we want to carry it out. It’s down to us and the players to win over the sceptics”.