When Ramon Angel Diaz described Paraguay’s fall to 80th place in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking last March as “crazy”, there were some who thought he was just paying lip service to the Paraguay fans anxiously waiting for him to make his debut as Albirroja coach.
El Pelado, who took on the job at the end of last year, quickly pressed home his point, however: “With the quality of players and resources that we’ve got, I think we can get out of this situation very quickly.”
Though the Argentinian began his tenure with a goalless draw and 1-0 defeat in respective friendlies against Costa Rica and Mexico, Diaz has remained true to his word. Six months on from making his intentions clear, Paraguay have moved up to 55th in the Ranking, their highest position since August 2014, when, after watching the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ back home on TV, they lay 47th. Then began a slide that the determined Diaz has now reversed.
A new dawn
Paraguay’s resurgence began to take shape in the build-up to the 2015 Copa America, when the new man at the helm conveyed this very clear message to his players: “We want to create a group, a structure that we can rely on in the future, and be a team that can earn respect again. We’re not going to let the fans down.”
In seeking to turn the page from Paraguay’s below-par performance in the Brazil 2014 qualifiers, his first step was to give a vote of confidence to three mainstays of the team in Justo Villar, Paulo Da Silva and Roque Santa Cruz, a trio with more than 340 caps. He surrounded the linchpins with a group of younger but still experienced players in the defender Miguel Samudio, the naturalised Argentinian-born midfielder Nestor Ortigoza and forward duo Lucas Barrios and Nelson Haedo Valdez, all of them aged between 28 and 31.
To his Chile 2015 mix Diaz also added a posse of youthful talents in their early 20s, led by gifted deep-lying forward Derlis Gonzalez and also featuring defenders Bruno Valdez and Fabian Balbuena and the midfielder Oscar Romero. The blend proved an effective one, as Paraguay regained the respect of their opponents with a string of good results in the group phase, clawing back a two-goal deficit to draw 2-2 with Brazil 2014 runners-up Argentina, beating Jamaica 1-0 and maintaining their unbeaten record with a 1-1 draw with defending champions Uruguay.
Second in the section, La Albirroja then knocked out Brazil on penalties in the quarters after a 1-1 draw in normal time, giving their fans the type of victory they had long been yearning for.
Reasons to be cheerful
Not even a 6-1 defeat to the Argentinians in the semi-finals or a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Peru in the match for third place could dampen Diaz’s optimism after the tournament: “People thought we’d last three days and we stuck around for a month. We went into the competition with a FIFA ranking of 85 and today we’re among the top four teams in the Copa America.
“We were in the thick of things and we’re very happy with what we achieved,” added the forthright Diaz, whose side climbed 29 places in the July Ranking on the back of their exploits in Chile.
“What we’re most satisfied with is the experience we’ve gained,” continued Diaz, flashing a trademark smile. “The team played well and showed character against big teams like Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, and we got a good look at a few players too, which all helps when it comes to planning for the future and the task we face in the qualifiers.”
The coach also took an upbeat view of a subsequent 3-2 friendly defeat against Chile in Santiago. “It’s a positive result: most of the players we took play in the national league and some of them don’t even know me, so it was an opportunity to get our message across to them,” he explained.
Aware that he still has plenty of work ahead of him, Diaz is nevertheless hopeful his side can kick on in their opening two Russia 2018 qualifiers next month, when they visit Venezuela and entertain Argentina.
“We’re going to be very competitive,” he promised. And when Diaz makes a promise, he usually keeps it.