Wednesday, May 31, 2006

#19: Guaranies or La Albirroja


Where? Landlocked in South Central South America. Borders Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia.

How big? Unsure of perception-wise, but it's about the size of California. Population is pretty small, only 6 Million, about the size of Indiana or just a little larger than the Dallas metropolitan area.

Something I learned from the CIA factbook (spotted there, found more info elsewhere)? In the 1860s, Paraguay fought a war against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay over control of the River Plate region. At the time, Paraguay had about 600,000 people living there. In a quest for a port, the Paraguayan government had aligned itself with a political party in Urugauy (the Blancos) to try to take some Brazilian land that would allow Paraguay sea access. A number of things happened, and before Paraguay could really take any military action, things had changed drastically. A Pro-Brazil political party had taken power in Uruguay, and the Blancos asked for help from Paraguay. Instead of helping immediately, the Paraguayan military captured a Brazillian ship and declared war on Brazil and Argentina. As incredible as this may seem today, at the time, the Paraguayan military was one of the strongest in South America, and dwarfed the size of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay combined. Apparently Paraguay had awakened sleeping giants. After a 5 year war, the Paraguayan population was not just decimated (a tenth), but a full two-thirds of the male population had been lost, and some estimates are even worse. It took basically a century for the country to recover. Strangely, if not for Brazil, Paraguay wouldn't exist today. After the War of the Triple Alliance, Argentina wanted to divide all Paraguayan lands in half between Brazil and Argentina (thinking the best lands would go to Argentina). Brazil preferred having a buffer state and refused to accept partition. Another crazy thing is that this war effectively ended slavery in Brazil - slaves who fought in the war were given freedom. Enough history lesson...

Geopolitical importance? Not much, really, because it's a land-locked country with few natural resources. Hydroelectricity has been one good thing to come about, and the Itaipu Dam on the Parana River is the larges hydroelectric power facility in the world (unless the Three Gorges Dam in China ends up passing it), creating almost 80% of the energy in Paraguay and over a quarter of the energy used in Brazil. It appears that there was a really bad outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease there in the early 2000s, but we only hear about that when it happens in Britain, Canada or Japan.

Anything fun? Israeli Nazi hunters tracked Dr. Mengele there, but the Holocaust isn't fun at all. Took a while to find, but this is fun... The Guarani are the indigenous people of Paraguay - about 95% of the population are mestizos mized with Guarani - and they had their own mythology. One interesting character is Kurupi. Kurupi is the God of forests and fertility. He's sometimes mixed together with (because he allegedly looks like) Pombero, the God of mischief. Both Kurupi and Pombero are blamed for unexpected or unwanted pregnancies. Both Kurupi and Pombero are described as looking short, ugly and hairy. But if you want to know that you've seen Kurupi in a vision, look to the belt. Supposedly, Kurupi's massive penis is so elongated that he's forced to wrap it around his waist several times. The gigantic member gets blamed for unwanted pregnancies because it is so large, allegedly, he doesn't even have to enter a house to impregnate a woman. The rod can just float inside through a window or something. Now, that's more fun than nazis in hiding, isn't it?


Paraguay aren't among the titans of South American Soccer, but they're no pushovers either. A solid member of the second tier behind Brazil and Argentina. This is Paraguay's 7th foray into the world cup, and they've advanced past the initial round 3 previous times, and in fact in their last three attempts - 2002, 1998, 1986. They've also won two Copa Americas, but not since 1979, and in recent years they haven't been able to get past the quarterfinals. Their most recent major tournament was probably Paraguay's finest hour in any sport. They lost to Argentina in the final of the 2004 Olympic Soccer tournament. That silver medal was the first medal any Paraguayan had ever won in an Olympics.

Qualifying for Germany got off to a rocky start in the rarefied air in Peru, where a 1-1 halftime score turned into a 4-1 defeat, showing that playing a twice sea level can be a bitch. Similar outcomes were seen at Ecuador and Bolivia. But at home Paraguay was tough to beat, winning 6, drawing two and only losing one (which was after they'd clinched a spot in Germany). The win against Argentina at home was the first ever in a long series of qualifying matches against Argentina.

The one face of Paraguayan soccer that the rest of the world knows is Jose Luis Chilavert, the flamboyant and brash keeper known for pushing forward and not infrequently scoring (he's the world's all time leading scorer among keepers). However, he has retired and new faces will be looked to. It should be OK, considering Paraguay advanced out of the group in Korea/Japan despite not having Chilavert in two of the games due to suspension (spitting on Roberto Carlos: classy).

The team is composed of players based all over. Only 5 of the selected players play in Paraguay - same number as based in Argentina. Another 4 play in Mexico, 3 in Germany and Spain, and others in Brazil, Italy, and Holland.

Chilavert's retirement doesn't mean that keeping in Paraguay will become a problem. Indeed, often times Chilavert's brashness hurt the team as much as it helped, especially against top international teams with the ability to counterattack. In his place now sits Justo Villar, a top keeper in Argentina for Newell's Old Boys (whom he led to the title in 2004). Another well known player is Jose Saturnino Cardozo, the nation's most capped player and all-time leading scorer. He's again on the roster, but his age and some injuries may prevent him from getting on the pitch too much. Still he's the last winner of the award for South American Footballer of the Year not named Tevez. Injuries also have snakebitten one of Paraguay's best scoring threats - Bayern Munich's Roque Santa Cruz. He's on the roster, but hasn't played in any of the lead-up friendlies due to tendinitis.

The one to watch, then, is Nelson Valdez. He's 23, and just now reaching his prime. Recently he transferred to Borussia Dortmund from Werder Bremen, so he knows the European games and won't shy from the stages of the Bundesliga stadia. Valdez hasn't had as many caps as you might expect for a player in this category, but recently he's made the most of it, scoring against Georgia and Norway. With the injury to Roque, look for Valdez to be the option up front.

The draw isn't the most difficult in the Cup, since I'd say Paraguay and Sweden are pretty close on talent and the fourth team in the group is the least talented in the entire draw. But the schedule doesn't work out well for Paraguay. Often confidence matters in cups, and opening against England, with this younger squad could hurt them.

And I do think the England game will cost them, because it'll be a closely contested match. Intensity should be high and surely the pressure will be on England far more than Paraguay. But I fear the Paraguayan propensity to concede late goals in qualifying, and their inability to defeat even mid-level European opponents in Europe (Denmark and Norway in recent friendlies). I think this one stays scoreless until late, when Owen breaks through and nets the winner (I could even see this as a PK). 1-0 England.

The hangover will hurt Paraguay severely. While Paraguay has to dwell over what could've been, Sweden will be riding high off a sound beating of Trinidad and Tobago. Sweden scores early and nets a second one just before the half. Defense rules the rest of the day, and Sweden hold on for a 2-0 win. This is the key game though - even a draw here could put Paraguay through.

But Paraguay won't go home empty handed, even though advancement is impossible. They'll show pride and pound Trinidad 3-0. One last goal for Cardozo, who retires from international football afterward.

One win, two losses, even on goal differential, and three goals. That places them 19th among teams in the tournament.

If this were March Madness, Paraguay would be... a reliable tournament attendee, who advances somewhat frequently, but never climbs out from the shadow of the local powerhouses and relies on one or two big names for recognition. Could be NC State, but the style doesn't really fit and it's a little smaller. I'll go with Wake Forest.

Much like Paraguay's great goalkeeping tradition, the Itaipu holds strong, allowing only what is necessary to pass.