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.

Paraguayan surprise packet Guarani will have to “hold back the River”

GuaraniWhen we think of South American football, we invariably see Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay as the main players. Indeed, between these three countries, 48 Copa Libertadores titles have been won, with Argentina accounting for almost half of them.

Guarani v River Plate, Paraguay v Argentina, Bugre v Los Millonarios

Outside the big three, Paraguay accounts for three winners and eight runners-up. The most successful club, outside the Argentine trio of Independiente, Boca and Estudiantes, and Uruguay’s Penarol, is Paraguay’s Olimpia, who won the Copa in 1979, 1980 and 2002, and were last runners-up in 2013.

This season, however, another Paraguayan club has reached the last four of the Copa Libertadores, Guarani, from the Asuncion suburb of Pinoza.

Guarani have surprised everyone this season and have beaten more celebrated names than themselves. In the group stage, they came in second to Racing Club of Argentina, but lost only once in their six games. Their other group opponents were Sporting Cristal of Peru and Venezuela’s Deportivo Tachira.

In the knockout stage, Guarani have played their home games at the Estadio Defensores del Chaco, drawing much bigger crowds than they would at their own humble surroundings. Guarani attract gates of around 1,500 in the Paraguayan league.

Most people expected Brazil’s Corinthians to beat them in the round of 16. In the first leg, over 10,000 people saw Guarani win 2-0 thanks to two second half goals from Federico Santander and Alberto Contrera. In the second leg, Guarani pulled off a 1-0 win in Brazil, Fernando Fernandez scoring the only goal after Corinthians had lost two players to red cards.

Guarani were drawn to meet group rivals Racing Club again in the last eight. More than 18,000 turned up to see the Argentinians return to Asuncion. In that tightly-fought first game, Julian Benitez scored with five minutes remaining to give Guarani a slim advantage to take to Buenos Aires.

The big debate was how Guarani’s veteran defenders, Julio Cesar Caceres and Ruben Maldonado, would cope with former Jose Mourinho acolyte Diego Milito (himself at the long-tooth age) and rising star Gustavo Bou. Guarani had the chance to tie-up the game early but Benitez missed a penalty. They held on and earned a goalless draw to go through.

In the semi-final – their first in the competition since 1966 – Guarani will face another Buenos Aires club, the mighty River Plate, who looked to be heading out of the competition in the quarter-finals. River’s first Copa Libertadores campaign since 2009 had started with just one win in six group games and they came in second to Mexico’s Tigres UANL (Juan Aurich of Peru and Bolivian’s San Jose were also in the group).

The last 16 saw them paired with old rivals Boca Juniors in a Superclasico two-legged tie. The first meeting saw River come out on top thanks to a late penalty from Uruguayan Carlos Sanchez. But the second leg was cloaked in controversy after Boca fans showered River’s players with some form of pepper spray as they came out for the second half. The game was abandoned at 0-0 and later awarded to River by 3-0.

River then faced Brazilian champions Cruzeiro in the quarter-finals. They surprisingly lost the home leg 0-1, going down to a late goal. “We can’t play any worse than that,” blasted River coach Marcelo Gallardo, pledging a better showing in the second game.

He kept his promise, for his side recorded an excellent 3-0 away win with goals from Sanchez, Jon Maidana and South American player of the year, Teo Gutierrez. The win in Belo Horizonte was seen as somewhat historic and underlined that River, who had been struggling to reproduce the form they showed in 2014 when they went close to winning the Primera Division, had rediscovered their mojo!

River have won friends for their attractive style of play at times this season, although more recently, they have resorted to a more physical approach. And there is a growing feeling that the Argentine FA’s referees have been a little generous with River. Don’t be surprised if they win the Primera this season…and the Copa Libertadores.