The Year 2017 in Review: Paraguay

They say, “If at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again.” However, a little South American nation and its fans have failed to recognize that saying and use it as a form of motivation rather than failure. Yes, the Paraguay national soccer team failed to reach two straight FIFA World Cups, for the first time its missed it twice in a row since the tournament in the United States in 1994. Of course, like the 90s, it was something that was part of a process and coming during a time before the new round-robin format that was introduced for the 1998 qualifiers, where all the 10 nations face each other once home away that spans 18 matches for each nation and a process that lasts more than two years.

And just missing that tournament in 1994, that process was only the beginning of what became a golden era when the national team made it to four straight FIFA World Cups from 1998 to 2010. When the national team hit rock bottom and finished last in the qualifying round for Brazil 2014, it was the devastating toll for a national team that had not known such a process in nearly two decades. It was not only aggravating for the fans that were accustomed of making consecutive World Cups, which was typically reserved for historical powerhouses and former world champions in the continent such as Brazil, Argentina, and even Uruguay. For the nation of about six million people, missing the trip to Russia only makes matters worse.

New Year, same problems

The year started off with low expectations. The team finished 2016 way below the top four automatic qualifying spots and the playoff spot reserved for 5th place in the continent. A resurgence of motivation and belief came about during that time, even to the extent of a side that was lackluster and even bipolar throughout the whole two years. After achieving a historic 1–0 result in Argentina in October of that year, the belief from the fans and even myself was shown and it would not be for the last time during the process. However, losses at home to a new-look Peru side and a loss away to a pitiful Bolivia side only made fans call for Francisco Chiqui Arce’s head, only months after taking the job from a sacked Ramon Diaz following a poor display in the Copa America that summer in the United States.

As 2017 began, Ecuador was the first match at home with failure to win would have definitely been the end of the road to a side that had already lost two of their last six home games and four of the six games under Arce, who was back in a second spell with the national team. The belief was restored as a 2–1 win from goals by defenders Bruno Valdez and Junior Alonso against an Ecuadorian side that really lost pace after a wonderful start in the qualifiers. That belief only was shattered where five days later, they took on Brazil with the motivation of getting a historic result in Sao Paulo. Alas, a 3–0 demolishing for Tite’s side put the Canarinho as the first qualified team for Russia and Paraguay lying in the abyss of missing another World Cup.

With five months until the next qualifying round, Arce took a mix of youth, experience, and inexperience for three friendlies against France, Peru and Mexico in the summer where they fell flat on their faces. A 5–0, 1–0 and a 2–1 loss respectively to each of the three nations only made matters worse, leaving fans with the if not already sour taste and expectation of a poor performance against back-to-back reigning Copa America champions Chile at their home ground in Santiago. But, just like Paraguay have been known for historically for punching above their weight, their never-give-up attitude and surprise package that made them a feared team at the start of the century, they pulled a historic double against La Roja, after winning 2–1 at home in 2016 by winning 3–0 in Santiago.

An own goal from Arturo Vidal gave La Albirroja the surprise lead, which later followed from goals by Victor Caceres and Richard Ortiz to give all three points, making them alive as ever of reaching that coveted goal of Russia. However, in what seemed to be a recurring theme in these qualifiers, they failed to get another result at home. Uruguay awaited as Paraguay looked for revenge following their 4–0 hammering in Charrúa territory last year, but in what seemed to be the best game La Albirroja played at home in the entire qualifiers, a 2–1 loss only left more sour tastes heading into the final round where a miracle was needed with an away match to Colombia and finishing the process at home against Venezuela.

Richard Ortiz celebrating the winning goal in a 3–0 away win to Chile.

Ecstasy to Agony

October in CONMEBOL was madness. With teams like Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and even Uruguay fighting for four spots to join an already qualified Brazil for the tournament in Russia, Paraguay only looked from behind in what already felt like a dejected and overwhelming process that they only wanted to end quickly. Heading into the match in Barranquilla, Chiqui Arce took the dubious call of calling three significant players.

The first was Libertad’s Oscar Cardozo, a veteran of this national team for various years who been the subject of criticism since his debut for the side. Despite scoring the deciding penalty against Japan to give Paraguay’s greatest result in South Africa 2010 by reaching the quarterfinals for the first time, he also missed the deciding penalty against the eventual champions Spain, there were other factors. He has been criticized by fans and pundits for not achieving the same level of form for the national team that he reached during his prime at Portuguese and European giants Benfica, where he scored nearly 30 goals a season during his time in Lisbon and where he now stands as the all-time top foreign goalscorer in the club’s history. A recent level of form following his European odyssey in Portugal, Greece, and Turkey back in his native Paraguay allowed Arce to call him back to the team, following the pleas of many fans and pundits around the country.

The second was Real Betis’ Antonio Sanabria. A former product of FC Barcelona’s esteemed La Masia academy, the 21-year-old striker was in impressive form and for a side that lacked goals throughout the Diaz and Arce era, Sanabria seemed to be the savior. This only came just a few days after he scored the decisive winning goal against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu for the Seville-based side. Finally, there was Corinthians’ center back Fabian Balbuena. A mainstay at the Timao, he developed a reputation of being a no-nonsense and solid center-back and received plaudits as one of the best defenders in the Brazilian league. Unfortunately, he has not been given the same attention on the national team, either not playing when called up or not even called up, period. With the suspended veteran and team captain Paulo da Silva out for the Colombia game, it was Balbuena’s time to shine as his replacement.

In a match which surprised a lot of people, including myself, Paraguay held on Colombia for the majority of the match but knowing the situation that they were in, even a draw would mean they were out of the World Cup. Many expected the end when Falcao scored the opening goal 11 minutes from time. But somehow, in the last 3 minutes of the game, both Cardozo and Sanabria scored the goals to give Paraguay a historic 2–1 victory in Colombia and with other results happening across the continent, meaning that a win at home in the final game against Venezuela would mean qualification for Russia 2018.

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. Despite having various chances against the Vinotino, a Yangel Herrera goal six minutes from time meant that La Albirroja had to yet again miss the biggest tournament on the planet for a second straight time, meaning a whole generation of fans who have been accustomed to seeing them in World Cups continue to be aggravated and a new one who has yet to see them play in the tournament. Overall, they finished seventh with 24 points, achieving seven wins, three draws and eight losses while scoring 19 goals and conceding 24 goals. So, why exactly did La Albirroja fail?

Angel Romero sharing the same sensations of every Paraguay fan after failing to miss back-to-back World Cups in a row.

What’s next?

There have been many factors for their failure. Many point to the fact that the team has failed to win at home, as they failed to win six of their nine home games at the once feared Defensores del Chaco. Other factors would include the lack of tactical awareness of Chiqui Arce, the lack of goals from forwards, goals conceded in the final minutes of a game, lack of finishing, the pressure of playing at home, the premature sacking of Diaz in the middle of the qualifiers, a lack of time spirit and many more factors. However, for every dark cloud, there is a silver lining.

2018 will also be the beginning of a new-look Paraguay, without the veterans from the golden era such as Paulo Da Silva, Cristian Riveros, Roque Santa Cruz, Oscar Cardozo, Nelson Haedo Valdez, Justo Villar who have been the pillar of the success Paraguay has gotten in the late 2000s. Such expectations will now be given of players such as Atlanta United’s Miguel Almiron, AC Milan’s Gustavo Gomez, Corinthians’ Fabian Balbuena, Lille’s Junior Alonso, Dynamo Kiev’s Derlis Gonzalez, Real Betis’ Antonio Sanabria, all of whom are in their early to mid-20s. Many other players such as Gatito Fernandez, Jorge Moreira, Oscar and Angel Romero, Cecilio Domínguez, Jesus Medina and so many others are ready to prove themselves with this new look generation, which can only prove great as a dose of youth can only help them even further.

So what’s next for 2018? As it will be one of the few years for national teams who aren’t in the World Cup that will only be playing friendlies, La Albirroja should expect about four matches against top quality sides from around the world, some who have qualified for the tournament in Russia. With Arce now goal, the Paraguayan FA will have to hire a new manager, in which president Robert Harrison said that it will be a manager with “world-class” experience. Many expect that it will be a foreign coach, something Paraguay has been accustomed to with success for various years.

Questions will be asked and have to be answered heading into the new year, as the main objective will now be to prepare for the Copa America in 2019 in Brazil and the qualifiers for Qatar 2022. Whomever the manager is, I could only hope that he can be the right one to help lead this talented side of great players but also realize the dangers of national teams around the continent being stronger than ever and from what we saw heading into Russia 2018, that qualifying for a World Cup will not be an easy cakewalk.

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