Paraguay, the 'other' quarter-finalists

The least glamorous nation in the last eight, Paraguay will still be a challenging hurdle for the favourites Spain.

When we look back at the 2010 World Cup, the quarter-finalists may be remembered as four previous winners, a two-time finalist, the reigning European champions and, to great fanfare, one that is carrying the hopes of a continent, Ghana. Oh, and the other one. Paraguay, to give them their proper name, are the other one. South America has, like Africa, been described as the forgotten continent. At this World Cup, Paraguay are its forgotten team. In a glorious tournament for the region, they lack the glamour Brazil and Argentina possess, the history of Uruguay and the style of Chile. They are the least well-known, least talented and least glamorous of the last eight. And, for those reasons, among the most deserving.

"Probably if you did an analysis at this moment in time, there are many teams who are superior to Paraguay in football terms but I don't know if they all have the heart that we have," Gerardo Martino, Paraguay's Argentinian manager told reporters. "And I don't know if they all recognise the historic moment which is before them in the way that we do." It is, indeed, historic. Paraguay played in the first World Cup, in 1930. Eighty years on, they are in its last eight for the first time. The penalty shoot-out victory over Japan, clinched coolly by Oscar Cardozo, took them into uncharted territory.

Consistent qualifiers - this is their fourth successive World Cup - they have navigated their way unobtrusively to the last 16 on two previous occasions. Further progress was made possible this year by topping a group that Italy were expected to win. That Marcello Lippi's side did not is explicable in part by a fine Paraguayan display in a 1-1 draw. It proved a solid start for the outsiders, though not for the defending champions.

Their success is attributable to a defence that, like Spain's, has been breached only once so far. If Paraguay have not captured the imagination, it is partly because of stalemates in their last two matches. Defence is a traditional strength and only Brazil conceded fewer goals in qualifying in South America. Antolin Alcaraz and Paulo da Silva have quietly formed an effective partnership at the back.

The difficulties have been in attack where their defenders (with one) and their midfielders (two) are responsible for Paraguay's meagre total of three goals. Their forwards are yet to muster one between them. Salvador Cabanas, whose goals enabled them to reach South Africa, is missing after being shot and nearly killed after a club match in Mexico in January. Yet Martino's main quartet of strikers come with considerable pedigree: Cardozo struck 38 times for Benfica last season and Lucas Barrios on 23 occasions for Borussia Dortmund, where Nelson Valdez also plays. Roque Santa Cruz is the second-highest scorer in Paraguay's history.

"We have not reached our ceiling yet," Santa Cruz, the Manchester City player, told Fifa.com. "We want to keep improving, play better and keep progressing." "We mustn't be too hard on our strikers," Martino said. "If they aren't scoring maybe it is because the balls aren't arriving fast enough to them. "Against Spain, we should have more space, because they play to win. In three of our games so far, we've had to take the game to our opponents."

After facing Slovakia, New Zealand and Japan in succession, they can revert to their favoured role of underdogs today. The onus will be on Spain, while Martino's favoured pressing game means they may find it harder to pass than normal. "We strikers do a lot of work defensively," Santa Cruz said. They may have to today but Spain, like Italy before them, may discover it is hard to forget Paraguay.

sports@thenational.ae

EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS