Thursday, 10 December 2009

A View From Slovakia - Part 2 - Paraguay

Although the excitement among journalists and fans alike tends to rise as the tournament progresses, the World Cup group stages are my personal favorite. Watching the diverse styles of football, and the encounters of teams or even countries that are half the world apart from each other [e.g. Iran v. Angola or Korea Rep v. Togo in 2006] is a true spectacle. The upcoming World Cup guarantees to provide several of such "encounters of a third kind" - and Group F should not disappoint on this front either. An NZ sports portal challenged its readers about the glamour of the upcoming NZ/Slovakia clash. I wonder what they say in Paraguay [any idea, anyone?]. It has already been established that Slovakia has more information about the All Whites than one would ever assume. Where does Paraguay fit in? Is it a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma? Or does another Ivan Hucko [Bahrain's assistant manager from Slovakia] operate somewhere in Central/South America, ready to enrich the Weiss crew with his knowledge?

Paraguaj [Paraguay]
A brief look at Paraguay's performances over the past decade or so reveals that it is a tough nut to crack. My first memories of seeing Paraguay in action date all the way back to the '98 World Cup. Who could forget its iconic goalkeeper - Jose Luis Chilavert that conceded only two goals in four games? The second one, scored by Laurent Blanc in the 114th minute, killed Chilavert & co.'s quarter-final dreams and my hopes of seeing a penalty shootout [Chilavert v. Barthez, quite literally facing each other...]. Four years later Paraguay lost in the second round to a strong German side after conceding a goal in the 88th minute, and at the last World Cup it failed to make it beyond the group stages after narrowly losing to England after a third-minute own goal and narrowly missing out on a draw with Sweden [Ljunberg scored in the 88th minute - history does tend to repeat itself...].

...and shout?

Despite its lack of luck at the World Cup, the Paraguayan side did extremely well at the 2004 Olympics, reaching the final, where a single goal by a certain Carlos Tevez confined the Guaraníes to the second place. At this point it would probably be worth of mentioning that despite its small population (6m is more or less comparable with Slovakia's 5.5m), Paraguay possesses a major pool of talent - around 250,000 children between the ages of eight and fourteen attend footballing schools and it shows - at the most recent U-20 South American championship [2009], Paraguay finished as runners-up to Brazil [population of 191m]. The senior team fared equally well in the World Cup qualifiers, missing out on the second spot only on goal difference and managing to beat Brazil and Argentina whilst keeping a clean sheet [2-0 and 1-0 respectively].


Gerardo Martino recently said that his team was "ready for a great World Cup", whereas Juan Napout, who is in charge of the Paraguyan Football Association apparently feels that his side "can succeed". Jose Luiz Chilavert expects Slovakia to "play in a similar style to Slovenia, which we can still remember from the 2002 World Cup" - Paraguay beat Slovenia in the final match of the group stages and by doing so secured the second place in Group B (ahead of South Africa on scored goals!). 

The current Paraguayan team has a great deal of experience with the international scene - 9 players have 40+ caps - the quartet of defenders Caniza, Silva, Caceres and Bonet share respectable 267 appearances for their country and Paraguay's defense showed its quality in the recent friendly with the Netherlands [0-0]. Even if Roque Santa Cruz is injured and/or hardly plays for his club, Valdez and especially Cabañas seem capable enough to replace him. Where does this leave Slovakia?

Slovakia - Chile [1-2]

Slovensko [Slovakia]
Slovakia's encounters with South American football had been minimal, but anticipating a possible confrontation with a team from Central and/or South America, a friendly match with Chile was played in Žilina [NW Slovakia] approximately three weeks ago. This game was an important lesson - and quite possibly a sign of things to come.

It was a game that Slovakia lost by a goal, but the gap between the two teams was visibly wide. Chile controlled the game (and the ball) for about 75 minutes straight, scoring their two goals after two poor defensive displays by the Slovak back four [watch the highlights above]. Ľuboš Kamenár's goalkeeping [Slovakia's no. 2, FC Nantes] was not entirely faultless either. Slovakia did manage to score a fine goal, but most Slovak players agreed that the opponent was, as Martin Škrtel [centre-half, FC Liverpool] put it, "at a totally different level". The Chileans "exceeded" Peter Pekarík's [right back, VfL Wolfsburg] expectations, Stanislav Šesták [striker, VfL Bochum] called the team "simply fantastic", and Vladimír Weiss [manager] summed everything up by saying that the opponent "deserved to win". Chile was very dynamic, great at keeping the ball and going forward - by the end of the game, Slovakia's players were visibly tired, if not exhausted. Šesták said that after the game "each player agreed not to had faced a better team on the international scene". South American football is, at least from a Slovak point of view, in a league of its own - Marek Hamšík [midfield, SSC Napoli] even explicitly stated his wish to avoid a South American side at the World Cup - yet Slovakia ended up with Paraguay.

"The boys are back in town"

Verdikt [Verdict]
Vladimír Weiss is currently trying to arrange some friendlies and is more than keen on playing another South American side - Uruguay. One dose of South American fútbol, did, in his words, give him and his team a "a lot". It was a wake up call - was it enough? If Slovakia was to play Paraguay, a team that beat Argentina, Brazil and Chile, tomorrow, I would put my money on the Guaraníes. With over half a year left until the kick off of Slovakia's second game at the World Cup, there is still time to fix and improve bits and pieces - the overall effect, however, depends (among other things) on the friendlies that the Slovak Football Association manages to arrange. The word on the street is that Italy is interested in playing Uruguay on the same date too. Another option is playing Venezuela, but is that good enough? The importance of preparation cannot be underestimated. While discussing the draw in general and mentioning Group F in particular, BBC's Phil Minshulled listed Slovakia as one of the teams to reach the second round, saying that "Paraguay are probably favourites for 2nd place but I'll take Slovakia to surprise them". All I can say right now is - time will tell!
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