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World Cup 2006 profile

Paraguay is on the rise -- is it ready for its close-up?

Posted: Thursday February 23, 2006 6:15PM; Updated: Monday April 24, 2006 10:03PM
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Paraguay looks to its captain and leader Carlos Gamarra, who is the anchor of the defense.
Paraguay looks to its captain and leader Carlos Gamarra, who is the anchor of the defense.
Michael Steele/Getty Images

By Gregory Sica, SI.com

Through late April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Paraguay. Click here for the full archive.

FIFA world ranking: No. 33.

How they qualified for Germany: Finished 8-4-6 for fourth place in CONMEBOL qualifying, with the same point total as Ecuador but an inferior goal differential.

Previous World Cups: Six appearances (1930, 1950, 1958, 1986, 1998, 2002). Reached the final 16 in '98, '02.

Manager: Aníbal Ruiz, fourth year with team.

Key players

Nelson Valdez is one of the brightest talents of South American soccer, and since his Werder Bremen debut in 2001, he has also become one of the most highly-rated strikers in the German Bundesliga. His speed, determination and awesome individual skills won him a starting spot in Ruiz's lineup. In last year's World Cup-qualifying victory over Argentina, Valdez put on a marvelous performance that attracted envious glances from top European clubs -- most notably FC Barcelona. At only 22, Valdez is likely to be one of the revelations of the '06 World Cup, and much of Paraguay's chances lie on his shoulders.

On the back line, Carlos Gamarra is an experienced defender who captains the team with his strong leadership skills and stability. Although "El Colorado" is a hard tackler, his timely interventions rarely earn him a booking. A veteran of two World Cups, Gamarra is the heart of the Paraguayan defense. Although he is the main organizer of the team, one of his greatest abilities is scoring headers from dead-ball situations. The much-traveled leader -- now with Brazil's Palmeiras -- has played in seven different countries over his career, and has picked up several different styles of play that have helped him become one of the most successful players to ever wear a Paraguay jersey.

What to watch for

The Paraguayans may be the most underrated side in the World Cup. After losing out to top opposition in their last two World Cup appearances, they hope to go a step further and reach the final eight. Although many of their players are not widely recognized around the world, they have become a very solid group in recent years -- winning the silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and surpassing Uruguay as the third-strongest side in South America. Manager Ruiz must be delighted with the progress of striker Roque Santa Cruz, who is back in action after a lengthy knee injury and is almost certain to lead a threatening strike force alongside Valdez, while Nelson Cuevas (a player who impressed with a magnificent two-goal performance against Slovenia in the '02 World Cup) will be a healthy option from the bench. Paraguay's main strength is its strong teamwork and consistency, but it also employs solid defensive tactics. Its main weakness is a difficulty to find the back of the net, especially when up against tough defenses.

Group: B (England, Trinidad & Tobago, Sweden).

Key match in group stage: June 15 vs. Sweden. These are two well-matched teams that both expect to advance to the knockout phase. The winner of this match will join England in the next round.

Oddsmakers' line: 125-1.

Projected Starting Lineup
Pos. Player Club team
G Justo Villar Newell's Old Boys (Argentina)
D Jorge Nuñez Estudiantes La Plata (Argentina)
D Carlos Gamarra Palmeiras (Brazil)
D Julio César Cáceres River Plate (Argentina)
D Edgar Barreto NEC Nijmegen (Netherlands)
D Denis Caniza Cruz Azul (Mexico)
M Roberto Acuña Deportivo La Coruña (Spain)
M Carlos Paredes Reggina (Italy)
M Salvador Cabañas Jaguares de Chiapas (Mexico)
F Nelson Valdez Werder Bremen (Germany)
F Roque Santa Cruz Bayern Munich (Germany)