Asunción – Paraguay’s soccer central

PARAGUAY is a football-mad country that is overshadowed by some of its more celebrated neighbours; Argentina and Brazil always dominate the narrative in South America and Uruguay earn their place at the table due to their extraordinary record in World Cups and Olympics. As a relatively small nation with a population of just seven million, Paraguay’s chance of competing on a global scale is miniscule.

That doesn’t mean Paraguay cannot produce outstanding players; one of the most exciting players in European football at the moment is Newcastle United’s Miguel Almirón, a native of Asunción, who grew up in the impoverished San Pablo area. Another familiar name is that of Roque Santa Cruz, the 41 year-old striker who has played for Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers, among others.

Living conditions for many people in the city are sub-optimal, with around 20% residing in slum dwellings. Asunción is also a city that is susceptible to flooding, which adds to the hardship. As with all South American countries, football is a distraction in Paraguay and given that the domestic game centres very much on the capital, the fervour is no higher than in Asunción.

Given the number of clubs in the city – nine of the 12-team Primera division – there’s no shortage of high octane local derbies involving Cerro Porteño, Libertad, Olimpia and Nacional. The big one is the Super Clásico between Olimpia and Cerro Porteño, who come from the neighbourhoods of Jara and Barrio Obrero respectively. The intensity of this derby was traditionally built around class differences, Olimpia supposedly being the club of the elite while Cerro had a working class following. Although the lines are blurred these days, the Super Clásico can be violent at times and it is not unusual for a fatality to be linked to the game.

Olimpia, who were founded in 1902, have a remarkable history in the Copa Libertadores. They have won the competition three times – 1979, 1990 and 2002 – and were runners-up in 2013. Given the strength of clubs from Argentina and Brazil, this is an impressive record. Olimpia have won no less than 46 championships in Paraguay. Olimpia might be the most popular club, but they are also one of the most unpopular, a familiar story in many countries. For many folk, you’re either pro Olimpia or you’re not.

Cerro Porteño have won 34 titles and have reached the last four of the Copa Libertadores six times. The club was formed in 1912, taking its name from a battle between Argentinian troops and the Paraguayan Army. They are known as Club del Pueblo, the people’s team, which may also owe something to the political situation at the time of their inauguration.

Nacional, like Cerro Porteño, are from the Obrero area, and were formed in 1904 by students from a public school. Not surprisingly, their nickname is La Academia. Their finest hour was reaching the Copa Libertadores final in 2014, which they lost to Argentina’s San Lorenzo. Libertad, champions 22 times, were also founded by scholars. Club Guaraní are based in Pinozá and are one of the oldest clubs in Paraguay. Interestingly, their yellow and black kit and crest are influenced by none other than Francis Drake, the English seaman and privateer whose contribution to British history is being reassessed. One of the most intriguing club names is Resistencia, who play in Ricardo Brugada, which is also known as La Chacarita, one of the poorest districts of the city.

The 2023 season kicks off at the end of January. The current format for the league is two 22-round tournaments within the season, the Apertura and Clausura. The opening week sees three local derbies: 2022 Apertura winners Libertad against Guarani; Cerro v  Sportivo Ameliano; and Sportivo Trinidense will play Tacuary. Clausura winners Olimpia host Sportivo Luqueño.

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