Forget Brazil. Forget Argentina. It’s Paraguay Who Deserve To Be There

‘That tiny country sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil? What about them?’ Clearly my geography teacher knows nothing about football. He may have been able to tell me that Asunciόn is its’ capital city and that it has a subtropical climate, but he missed the most important thing; Paraguay are second in the South American Qualifying zone.

I’ll give you a second to rub your eyes, but Paraguay’s qualification should come as no surprise to anyone. After all this is the fourth consecutive time Paraguay have reached the finals, an indication of the shift in terms of power in South America. And with other nations such as Chile and Ecuador emerging, the ‘superpowers’ should no longer take qualification as a divine right.

Yet Paraguay looked far from qualifying material in their opening encounter. Out-thought and out-fought by the group’s whipping boys Peru, Gerardo Martino admitted to the press that they were lucky to escape with anything. Whatever he said to inspire them, it certainly worked, as Paraguay then embarked on a four match winning streak. Nelson Valdez’s 15th minute strike saw off Uruguay, before a Christian Riveros brace helped Paraguay gain a 5-1 defeat of Ecuador. Hot on the heels of Brazil and in seemingly brilliant form, they were ruthless in a three-goal crushing of Chile.

Then came their big, big test against Brazil. When Roque Santa Cruz scored, Asunciόn erupted, so imagine the scene when Salvador Cabanas doubled their lead. Paraguay had battered the Samba Kings, and were worthy of their position. But as the old saying goes, ‘beating the tops teams is only any good if you can also beat the weak teams’, a saying that Martino clearly didn’t take much note of when they visited Bolivia. A weak performance was punished easily, although the searing heat probably didn’t help the Paraguayans.

An assured performance saw Paraguay outplay Argentina in their own back yard, but ultimately, Gabriel Heinze’s own goal was cancelled out by Sergio Aguero on the hour mark. Cue another season-defining run. Riveros and Valdez set up an easy win over Venezuela, before a solitary Cabanas strike was enough to scrape their way past Colombia. But yet again, Paraguay seemed to lack urgency when facing the weaker teams, and it took a well-taken Oscar Cardozo strike to finish off Peru. Despite sitting pretty in the table, Martino still had concerns over his squad, with Roque Santa Cruz ruled out indefinitely.

After a long International break, most would have thought that Paraguay would come back refreshed. Errrmmm, no. Only ‘lethargic’ could describe their performance as they succumbed to a two-goal defeat in Uruguay, with the two Diego’s – Forlan and Lugano – questioning Paraguay’s ability to see out their petering campaign. And they should have lost the next one, too. Edgar Benitez’s stoppage-time winner rescued a point against Ecuador, the side they had beaten so convincingly earlier on. Still, only three points were needed. Only three points? Two losses later, it didn’t appear to be so easy. Matias Fernandez and Humberto Suazo gave Chile a two-nil win, and four days later Paraguay were made to rue missed chances. Cabanas gave them a shock lead in Brazil, and after chances to double their lead, they were made to pay, Robinho and Nilmar giving Brazil the points.

But soon they were home and dry, Argentina the victims. As Valdez scored the crucial goal, the Paraguayan public celebrated emphatically, with the nation’s President even creating a national holiday to celebrate their success. And there we have it. That tiny country sandwiched between two greats qualified. And in much, much more impressive circumstances.

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