Ralph Hannah –
The CONMEBOL section of World Cup Qualifying continued on Thursday night with Paraguay vs Chile. The South American qualification route is generally considered to be the toughest tournament in World Football, with a dizzying altitude, searing heat, hostile crowds and of course the outstanding footballing quality on display. It is scarcely believable that Paraguay, a country of seven million inhabitants and the second poorest in the region behind Bolivia, is still in contention to qualify for their fifth World Cup in six attempts.
Thursday night’s heroic win over back-to-back Copa América champions Chile in Asunción has only put them in sixth place, but they are just two points behind the leaders, Argentina. That speaks to the competitiveness and quality of the competition, as does the fact that the best Chilean side of all time are seventh.
Paraguay vs Chile was a resurrection for Paraguay manager Chiqui Arce
Thursday night was something of a resurrection for Paraguay manager, Chiqui Arce, who was unfairly criticized and hounded out of the job in 2012. He was held to blame for not taking the Albirroja to the 2014 World Cup although hindsight proved that he was the most successful of the 3 managers used during that fateful qualifying campaign. Back at the helm, with two league titles—Cerro Porteño and Olimpia respectively—under his belt, this was his first game in his second stint as coach.
Prior to the match, Arce employed some of that winning mentality in the press conference when he was prompted to respond to Arturo Vidal’s claim that Chile were “the strongest side in the world right now”. Breaking from Spanish into Guaraní (an indigenous language that has prevailed in Paraguay because the Jesuit priests decided it was better to preach in Guaraní than Spanish) he replied “Mba’e jakyhyje tereita, ñande ichaguante avei hikuai” which means “Why should we be scared? If they’re just the same as us?”
It was an answer that his predecessor Ramón Díaz couldn’t have given, not because of the language barrier but because Arce had reached inside Paraguay’s collective psyche and the self-doubt suffered from being smaller in terms of numbers and worse off in terms of riches. It might help explain why they refused to give up a 2-0 goal lead last night, as they had done against Brazil in the previous qualifier – although some astute tactics also helped.
Paraguay blitzed Chile with two goals in 10 minutes, La Roja were thrown totally off their game as they surely did not expect Paraguay to press relentlessly from the offset. Oscar Romero’s fantastic long-range goal was set up by Jorge Moreira, the right back, with a pass from the middle of the pitch about 30 yards out. It was Moreira who forced the corner for the second goal as well, the River Plate right-back exploiting all the space on the flank allowed by Chile’s attacking formation.
Moreira was a key player throughout, in the first half he man marked Alexis Sánchez which would usually be defensive suicide with the Arsenal man’s movement – but Víctor Ayala did a great job filling in behind at right-back where in fact he started his career. Another standout was Gustavo Gómez, the central defender recently became the first ever Paraguayan to play for AC Milan and he looked accomplished marking Eduardo Vargas who saw little of the ball.
Arce had a host of players who, like Moreira and Gómez who had sealed these big moves following title-winning performances, were on excellent runs of club form. Federico Santander is a limited striker in terms of ability but he had just scored the goal that took Copenhagen to the Champions League group stages and did a great job holding up the ball and harrying defenders. Oscar Romero wasn’t considered a starter under Ramón Díaz, but one of Racing’s best players more than earned his place – apart from the goal he proved his defensive worth with some key challenges in the dying minutes.
It was in those final 20 minutes when Arce had to make some key decisions, Chile were just a goal down and Sánchez was finding plenty of space in the middle as Cristian Riveros and Rodrigo Rojas couldn’t get close to him while trying to keep tabs on Vidal and Aranguiz. Rather than bring on a defender, or experienced midfielder Nestor Ortigoza, he called up the spindly Miguel Almirón of Lanús, a 22-year-old attacking midfielder.
Paraguay vs Chile – Arce gamble paid off
It was a huge gamble, and the frantic hand signals between Arce, Almirón and Cristian Riveros suggested that it hadn’t been planned at all—it just about worked. Riveros was told to sit to try and squeeze the space Alexis had found in front of the defence, and Almirón used his pace and quick feet to launch counter attacks whenever Paraguay won the ball in midfield. It almost brought a third goal, and definitely earned some respite from the Chilean onslaught.
Arce celebrated the win mucho more emphatically than usual—he is often quite reserved and almost aloof on the bench. In his post-match press conference he talked about “perfection” and everybody understanding their roles which was no mean feat after just 3 days training together, although he had coached 9 of the 11 starters at some point in his career. This resounding result against one of the best teams in the world, who hadn’t played badly, was in stark contrast to Arce’s first game in charge—a lackluster defeat in Lima away to Peru where the team looked rudderless for long periods.
The 45-year-old knows all too well, the perils of a bad first impression, and he was making amends not just with the result but also with his post-game attitude when he went so far as to praise the country for their support—not a typical comment from a man who is often regarded as arrogant. And finally he broke into Guaraní again which, it seems, will be a new superstition at press conferences to go along with his other one—not shaving until the day before a game. He signed off with “Pyapy, Mbarete ha Py’a Guasu, peicha ja ganá”—Staying calm, standing strong and with a lot of courage, that’s how we win.
If the players (and to some extent the fans) stand with him, Paraguay will be in Russia.
Ralph Hannah is Londoner living in Luque with a keen interest in Paraguayan football history and statistics. A frequent traveler throughout Latin America he attends games throughout the region and has written for a variety of publications and set up the first English-language blog on Paraguayan Football. When not in the Defensores del Chaco he’s looking after his 2 daughters. Follow Ralph on Twitter @paraguayralph.