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Chilavert blow should not derail Paraguay
To reach consecutive FIFA World Cup finals is no small feat. For a country like Paraguay, whose population numbers less than five million, it is a big deal.
After all, this is a nation where sport barely registers on the scale of social priorities - and where 90 per cent of football is played in the capital Asuncion, a city of under a million people.
The fact Paraguay have achieved this for the first time in their history owes much to Sergio Markarian, the Uruguayan coach who led them to the second phase of the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
Yet whether they can repeat that showing in Korea/Japan will depend on their ability to do without inspirational goalkeeper, Jose Luis Chilavert.
Paraguay will be shorn of their captain's all-pervading influence for the first two matches of next summer's competition. The 35-year-old's suspension (a four-game ban for spitting at Brazil's Roberto Carlos during a qualifier in August) leaves a black mark against their chances of clean sheets.
Which is a shame, because on the evidence of the South American qualifiers, Paraguay now have the attacking nous to add to their traditional miserliness in defence.
Markarian's men were second-top scorers in the section, behind runaway leaders Argentina, with 29 goals.
Less of a surprise, perhaps, was the coach's choice of player. Talk about usual suspects: Chilavert (Strasbourg, France); Arce (Palmeiras, Brazil), Caniza (Santos Laguna, Mexico), Gamarra (AEK Athens, Greece), Ayala (River Plate, Argentina), Enciso (Olimpia Asuncion), Struway (Libertad Asuncion), Acuna (Real Zaragoza, Spain), Paredes (Porto, Portugal); Cardozo (Toluca, Mexico), Santa Cruz (Bayern Munich, Germany).
However, this is the squad that has brought unprecedented respectability to Paraguay's footballers.
Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa, whose team had to settle for two draws from their meetings with their cross-border rivals, has no doubts as to the standard we can expect from them.
Forget Brazil, he said, "Paraguay were the toughest rivals we faced in the qualifying tournament." Some commendation.
Significant past players:
Julio Cesar Romero, Saturnino Arrua, Jose Parodi, Cesar Lopez Fretes, Delfin Benitez Caceres, Aurelio Gonzalez.
-- Copa America winners 1953, 1979, runners-up 1922, 1929, 1947, 1949, 1963
-- Olympic qualifying tournament winners 1992
Significant past players:
-- Copa America fourth place 1993
-- FIFA World Youth Championship 2001, last 16
-- 2002 FIFA World Cup second in South American qualifying group
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