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No longer just happy to be there, Paraguay sets sight on doing more


Peru had a golden era in the 1970s, Colombia threatened a breakthrough in the late '80s and early '90s, Ecuador was strong earlier in this decade. For a brief moment, it seemed each of these country could establish itself behind Brazil and Argentina as South America's third soccer force. But then quality players grew old, were not well replaced, and the national teams slipped back.

It is remarkable, then, that one tiny nation seems to have avoided this pitfall. The population of Paraguay (under 6.5 million) is far smaller than Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. It is a land of limited resources. A fourth consecutive World Cup is a splendid achievement by itself.

But the Paraguayans are doing much more than basking in their achievement. After finishing atop their group, they now prepare to face either Japan or Denmark in the round of 16. Either way, it represents the national team's best chance of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time.

In South America, there is an old stereotype of Paraguayan soccer -- dogged, competitive, good in the air but limited in technical terms. The 2010 model has quite a bit more.

In part this is the fruit of improvements made to the domestic game. The Paraguayan championship suffers from the constant sale of players abroad -- Mexico has become an especially popular destination. Within this limitation, though, steps have been taken to make the tournament more competitive. The first division was cut from 18 to 10 teams -- it is now back up to 12. Staging the Copa America in 1999 allowed for investment in infrastructure outside the capital Asuncion, and has decentralized the competition.

There has also been some excellent youth development work taking place. Paraguay have become a force in South America in Under-15, Under-17 and Under-20 tournaments. All of this eventually feeds through to the senior national team.

There is, then, more strength in depth for coach Gerardo Martino to call upon. But his participation in the process should not be underestimated. There are few more impressive coaches in South Africa.

Martino is from Argentina, where as a player he holds the record for number of appearances for the Newells Old Boys club. Towards the end of his days as a creative midfielder, he was coached by the young Marcelo Bielsa, now the fascinating figure in charge of Chile.

Bielsa, as his side has shown in its opening two games, is a self-confessed obsessive for attack. Some of this spirit rubbed off on Martino, who acknowledges the influence. As a result, Paraguay has a coach who brings it something desperately needed -- an adventurous outlook.

In previous World Cups the Paraguayans have often been shackled by timidity, happy to hang on and hope for a lucky break. Now they want to do something more ambitious.

I remember well Martino's first competitive game in charge, against Colombia in the 2007 Copa America, staged in Venezuela. Paraguay won 5-0, but Martino was not happy. It had been a counterattacking triumph, where Colombia were sucked forward and picked off on the break. This was not what Martino had intended. His big idea was to get his team playing higher up the field.

The history of that competition showed he was trying to move too far too fast. The wheels fell off in the quarterfinal against Mexico, where Paraguay went down 6-0.

Martino realized he had to be more pragmatic. The general guideline remains -- whenever possible he wants his men putting the opposition under pressure. With a collection of dangerous strikers, and the excellent Cristian Riveros arriving from midfield, it is a viable strategy. But he recognizes there are opponents and match situations that call for a more defensive approach.

These, though, do not include Slovakia or New Zealand. Martino was critical of the second half Paraguay produced against the Slovaks, and unimpressed with his team in the dull 0-0 draw with the New Zealanders.

"I'm happy that we've qualified for the second round," he said, "but not with the way we played. I'm not satisfied."

Finishing atop the group is not good enough for Gerardo Martino. He wants to be on top of the world.