MUMBAI: If you look at the map of South America, Paraguay is placed somewhat uncomfortably between Brazil and Argentina. The football-mad country, in the football-mad continent, has perennially lived in the shadows of the two super-powers. Their under-17 team is doing their best to shine a light on the tiny country with big ambitions.
Paraguay finished third in the 2017 U-17 South American championships, making the cut for the U-17 World Cup even as Argentina and Uruguay fell by the wayside.
Their biggest claim to fame from the tournament was that Paraguay was the only team that eventual champions Brazil did not beat. They held Brazil 1-1 in the group stages. But it was their 2-2 draw in the final stages that made them a real contender. After falling behind 2-0 in the first half, Paraguay made a late surge, scoring in the 78th and 82nd minutes.
“It was very difficult, but we gave it our best shot,” Paraguay head coach Gustavo Morinigo said in Mumbai on Tuesday.
“We are not a big country like Brazil, they always manage to do well. But we are a well-balanced side, and everyone knows we go onto the football field with full force. Our self-belief paid off in that tournament.”
For the U-17 World Cup, which starts on October 6, Paraguay has been drawn in Group B with New Zealand, Turkey and African champions Mali. All their matches are at DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai, the first one against Mali on October 6.
Even though Paraguay doesn’t have massive corporate support in football, they have a formidable youth set-up. They emphasise on fitness and training sessions and had been preparing for the World Cup for three months in Albir Roja, where national teams of all age-groups are housed.
Players were made to practise early morning, as early as 2 am, to condition for the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference with India. Their support staff include a chef and kinesiologist. They also trained in Germany and played four warm-up matches there before arriving in India.
“In Paraguay, football moves people, it makes them happy. But our national team hasn’t been very successful on the world stage unfortunately,” says Morinigo, who was part of Paraguay’s 2002 World Cup squad. “But things are slowly changing. A lot of investment is being made in the U-17, U-19, U-20 squads so that they can come together later and do well in seniors.”
It helps that they get encouragement from the highest offices in the country. Paraguay’s current President, Horacio Cartes, was the president of the national team during the 2010 World Cup qualification campaign. That was the last time Paraguay made it to the premier event.
“Having finished third in the South American championships, expectations from these boys are high,” adds the coach.
“But it’s a difficult group.” The team though have come well tuned for that.