Paraguay hoping to build on surprise 1998 successPosted: Thursday April 25, 2002 6:30 AM
ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) -- Four years ago, Paraguay's national team surprised the soccer world -- twice.
Having made it to their sixth World Cup finals, the Paraguayans advanced through their first round group, sending Spain to a shock opening round exit. Then they held eventual champion France for 113 minutes in the second round, only to fall to a Laurent Blanc goal in extra time.
That performance put Paraguay on the map. Now the South Americans are looking to better it.
"In 1998, Paraguay lacked experience," skipper Jose Luis Chilavert told France Football magazine recently. "Even so, we pushed France to their limits. Now we have a great team ... anything could happen."
Paraguay come to the finals on the back of a solid qualifying campaign, finishing tied for third alongside Brazil, with 30 points from 18 games.
The side was excellent at home, scoring seven wins out of nine games, including 5-1 thrashings of Peru and Bolivia and a 2-1 victory over Brazil.
But there were also disappointments for the "Albirojos" -- not least a 3-1 away loss to minnow Venezuela and a 4-0 home thrashing by Colombia.
As always, goalie Chilavert was the headline grabber. He produced some excellent displays, scored four goals and got himself banned for three games for spitting at Brazil's Roberto Carlos. He will miss Paraguay's World Cup opener against South Africa.
Striker Jose Cardozo of Mexico's Toluca also had a strong campaign, hitting six goals, while midfielder Carlos Paredes netted five.
In a side that shows strong continuity from the 1998 squad, the one area of big improvement has been up front.
Four years ago, Paraguay's attackers struggled, scoring in only one of four games. Now, the emergence of 20-year-old Bayern Munich striker Roque Santa Cruz and the hot form of Cardozo, 33, have guaranteed a potent strike force.
Santa Cruz, nicknamed "Babygoal," has given the attack pace and energy, making the side more dangerous on the break. Cardozo's know-how, technical craft and lethal finishing make him the perfect complement.
In midfield, Paraguay mixes class and clout. Roberto Acuna of Zaragoza is a silky playmaker, whose darting runs, close control and superb passing keep Santa Cruz and Cardozo supplied.
FC Porto's Paredes gives the bite, marking tightly, hitting opponents with crunching tackles and scoring regular goals.
At the back, little has changed since France.
AEK Athens' Carlos Gamarra and Celso Ayala of Argentina's River Plate form a formidable duo in central defense -- good tacklers with poise on the ball and comfortable in the air.
Chilavert, now 36 and at French side Racing Strasbourg, remains the dominant presence. His understudy is Olimpia's Ricardo Tavarelli, a rising star.
Yet for all the individual talent, questions remain.
The first is the coach.
After the 4-0 home defeat to Colombia in November, the Paraguayan soccer association surprised fans and players alike by sacking Sergio Markarian, despite the fact he had guided the team to the finals.
In came Cesare Maldini, Italy's coach in 1998, now aged 70.
Despite his vast experience, Maldini was savaged by the Paraguayan press and many local coaches, who accused him of being too old, too defensive -- and even of working illegally in Paraguay.
The players have been loyal to Maldini, with Chilavert recently calling him "a fantastic coach."
But doubts remain, not least how well the Italian really knows Paraguay's home-based players and whether the defensive style Maldini is renowned for is right for Paraguay.
The second concern is age, especially in defense. At least eight of the likely World Cup squad are over 30; in the backline, the average age is 32.
And in the exhausting humidity of the Far East, stamina will be crucial.
Paraguay has also hit a slump in recent months, going six games without a win. Their latest outing ended in a 4-0 drubbing against England.
But striker Santa Cruz says he is confident that Paraguay will qualify for the second round. Its group rivals are Spain, Slovenia and South Africa.
"It's a pretty difficult group," says Santa Cruz. "But we have great players and if we play with concentration and discipline, we will have a good chance."