Paraguay set to defy World Cup holders Italy

ASUNCION, May 23, 2010 (AFP) - Paraguay will be under the spotlight as soon as they arrive in South Africa as first up for the talented South Americans are World Cup holders Italy.

That would be a daunting prospect for most teams, but Paraguay can no longer be regarded as World Cup minnows having this year reached their fourth straight finals.

The Paraguay football team

That was achieved with a powerful run through the South America zone qualifiers where they led most of the way only to be pipped at the post by Brazil.

Wins over the Brazilians and over Argentina saw Paraguay take third place and ensure qualification with two games to go.

Much of the merit for that has been given to Argentinian coach Gerardo Martino who has managed to negotiate a delicate transition phase for his team, whilst still getting the results.

Paraguay's "golden generation" including such as Carlos Gamarra, Francisco Arce, Celso Ayala and extrovert goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert put their country on the World Cup mark in France 1998, when they were unlucky to lose to the hosts and eventual winners in the last 16 with a Golden Goal from defender Laurent Blanc.

Four years later in Asia, they again reached the second round but bowed out to eventual finalists Germany with a goal two minutes from time.

A new generation of players have taken over under the guidance of Martino notably Nelson Haedo Valdez of Borussia Dortmund, Roque Santa Cruz of Manchester City and Oscar Cardozo of Benfica in attack with Jonathan Santana of Wolfsburg and Edgar Barreto of Atalanta in midfield.

Chilavert's old goalkeeping position has been filled by Justo Villar, who plays with Valladolid in Spain.

Also joining them will be Argentina-born Lucas Barrios, who plays for Borussia Dortmund and who recently was naturalised Paraguayan as his mother was born in that country.

"I can imagine Paraguay causing some suprises in South Africa," said Barrios, who finished third top scorer in the Bundesliga last season with 19 goals.

Sadly there was no place in the squad for Club America striker Salvador Cabanas who was Paraguay's top scorer in the qualifiers with six goals.

He was shot in the head in a Mexico City bar last January and although he is on the road to recovery, he will not be fit in time for South Africa.

Paraguay have been busy in the buildup to the tournament defeating Athletic Bilbao 3-1, drawing 1-1 at home with South Africa and defeating North Korea 1-0 in Switzerland through a Santa Cruz penalty.

Other games are to follow in Europe against Ireland, Costa Rica and Greece before the squad heads to their base camp at Pietermaritzburg where they will finalise their preparations for Italy and the two other Group F contenders Slovakia and New Zealand.

The only sour note to date was a burglary at their World Cup training site in France when thieves made off with 110,000 dollars in cash from their hotel.

Paraguay football chief Juan Angel Napout insisted that the matter would be quickly forgotten.

"This story isn't going to affect our preparations for the World Cup," he said.

Other news