Sunday, May 09, 2010

32 For 2010: Paraguay

Participants in the first tournament they may be but up until recent years, Paraguay's contribution to World Cup history has been fairly inauspicious. Between 1930 and 1998, the land-locked country located in the shadow of Argentina and Brazil as their neighbours, only qualified for the final stages three times.

Since 1998 however, Paraguay have become a regular fixture in the World Cup draw. Thus far they have never progressed beyond the second round and last time, in Germany, could not manage even that. Paraguay finished third behind Sweden and England and had an uninspiring tournament in an uninspiring group (the game against England was a snore-fest).

This year there may be more grounds for optimism on the back of an exciting qualification campaign. The White and Red registered impressive victories against Brazil and Argentina plus a 5-1 thumping of Ecuador. They finished third in the CONMEBOL qualification table, only one point behind the group winners, Brazil.

In terms of the players, English football fans will know all about Roque Santa Cruz' exploits on Manchester City's bench and treatment table. The former Blackburn and Bayern Munich striker has scored 20 goals for his country. National team coach, Gerardo Martino, also has to choose from Benfica striker Oscar Cardozo and Borussia Dortmund's Nelson Valdez.

In an interesting twist, Valdez may be joined by his strike partner at Dortmund, Lucas Barrios. Now, anyone who has been following Barrios' exploits this season on the Bundesbag will know that he is an Argentine. However, Barrios' mother is Paraguayan and he has just had his citizenship confirmed. Without further ado Barrios was selected by coach Martino (himself, an Argentine) for the latest national team training camp and looks set to be named in the squad.

This will not be an uncontroversial selection as non-Paraguayan Paraguayans are not usually made welcome in the national team. However, If Barrios can replicate his Bundesliga form (19 goals in his first season) in the World Cup, then he may be crucial to their hopes of progressing to the Second Round.

If that is to be achieved, Paraguay must overcome the world champions Italy, dark horses Slovakia and happy-to-be-there New Zealand in Group F. Not impossible but not easy. Their best chance may come in the first game against the notoriously slow starting Italians on 14th June. A good result there would set up their campaign nicely.

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