LOSING YOUR TOP GOAL SCORER IN THE MOST HORRIFYING AND SENSELESS WAY—GUNNED DOWN IN A MEXICO CITY BAR—IS THE KIND OF EVENT THAT CAN EITHER RIP A TEAM APART OR BRING it together. For Paraguay it has been the latter. Salvador Cabañas was shot in the head by an apparent hit man in the bathroom of a nightclub in late January, and part of the bullet remains lodged in his skull because doctors decided it was too dangerous to try to remove it. He was released from the hospital in early March and has begun a long rehabilitation process. It's very unlikely that he will join his teammates in South Africa, but he'll be with them in spirit.
Paraguay might have finished qualifying as the top team in South America had it not taken its foot off the gas against Colombia in the last qualifier match—a 2-0 loss at home that was meaningless because La Albirroja had already secured its ticket to South Africa. That's a sign of how far this team has come, although it should not have been a surprise: Paraguay has been a World Cup mainstay since France 1998, and it has advanced to the second round in two of the last three tournaments.
Success tends to breed success, and today's squad is following in the footsteps of the class of '98, which was led by captain Carlos Gamarra, target man José Cardozo and, of course, the goal-scoring keeper, José Luis Chilavert. While the current Albirroja may lack that kind of individual star power, it displays a cohesion and tactical discipline that were previously lacking.
Coach Gerardo (El Tata) Martino must get some of the credit. A former standout midfielder for Argentina's Newell's Old Boys, the 47-year-old Martino—a disciple of fellow Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, the offensive-minded coach of Chile—has taken his master's tactical vision and adapted it to the Paraguayan game. That means tight defending, sterling organization and tactical flexibility. (You'll see Paraguay happily shifting systems, from 4-4-2 to 4-3-1-2 to 4-3-3, often in the same game.)
Nevertheless Paraguay had trouble scoring goals even with Cabañas. And that's rather curious, considering that La Albirroja's biggest stars are a pair of strikers, Nelson Haedo Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz. Critics blame an overly conservative approach by Martino that sometimes isolates the frontmen. But it might serve Paraguay well in the World Cup, especially if it advances to the knockout phase.
Without Cabañas we're likely to see a more orthodox partnership between Haedo Valdez and Santa Cruz. Of course Santa Cruz will have to be healthy. He has started more than 21 league games just once in his nine-year professional career, prompting some pundits to quip that he is made of glass. Yet if he happens to be fit come June, look out, because the powerful 6' 2" center forward can punish opponents with both brawn and finesse.
The versatile Haedo Valdez provides quickness and acceleration in wide areas and is a natural foil for Santa Cruz. The prolific Oscar René Cardozo, another bruiser, will challenge Haedo Valdez for a starting spot. Alternatively, Santa Cruz could be dropped deeper and Martino could field all three attackers up front, especially if Paraguay falls behind.
Enrique Vera and Víctor Cáceres are an old-school ball-winning duo in front of the back four. They don't provide much in the way of creativity, but they bring plenty of passion and crunching tackles.