TOKYO, Japan – Paraguay has won the Copa America twice, has made the quarterfinals in seven of the last eight tournaments, and has played the last four World Cups. Their opponent Venezuela is in the Copa America semifinals for the first time and has never even been to a World Cup. In the five previous Copa meetings between the two sides, Paraguay has won four, drawing the other in the group stage a week ago. Yet speaking to the press this week, Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino insisted: "We are not favourites."
It was a comment indicative of a man whose cool and humble persona has quite clearly rubbed off on his players since taking the job four years ago. "We have ambitions of winning the tournament," forward Nelson Valdez told ABC Paraguay this week, "that now depends only on us. We must maintain our humility."
Following Paraguay's penalty shootout victory over Brazil this past weekend, Martino praised his players' "courage and heart," but was quick to remind them that there has to be an improvement if they expect to be in the final at El Monumental on Sunday night.
"We have to improve to have a chance of winning the Copa America," he warned, "and the only way to reach the final is [by playing] better football."
A studious man, the 48-year-old Argentinian-born coach can cut an intimidating figure; his wide-eyed gaze remains transfixed on his questioner for the entirety of every answer he delivers to his packed press conferences.
An Argentinian once told me a joke about Italian men that went something like, 'to gag them you need only to cut off their hands'. 'Tata' Martino speaks with his eyes.
Having succeeded Anibal Ruiz four years ago, Martino led Paraguay into the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela intent on a more attacking style than the country had seen from its predecessors. A 5-0 thrashing of Colombia was seen as the beginning of a new, more proactive era of Paraguayan footballer. That victory was followed by a 3-1 win over USA, rendering its narrow defeat to Argentina in the final group game insignificant. However, warning signs were there. Its play was at times perhaps overzealous and had Hugo Rodallega made the most of a counter-attack that left Colombia four-against-three with the game still goalless, or had Alvaro Domínguez converted his early penalty, things may have been different. A 6-0 hammering from Mexico in the quarter-finals sent Paraguay crashing out, and led Martino back to the drawing board.
Since then, he has made his team considerably tougher to break down. It conceded just 16 goals in 18 games on its way to qualification for the World Cup based on a compact 4-4-2 - a formation that, as you will have seen in this year's Copa, repeatedly morphs into a 3-5-2 when Dario Veron comes across from right back and Aureliano Torres pushed up on the left. To label Martino a defensive-minded coach, however, would be inaccurate.
His side were widely derided during the World Cup for being overly cautious, but Martino's hands were tied following the tragic shooting of Salvador Cabanas. The Club America forward was vital to Los Guaraníes' qualification campaign, providing the link between midfield and attack; his importance was perhaps most evident during his one-man demolition of Diego Maradona's Argentina in Asuncion. Martino tried everything to plug that Canabas-shaped hole last year in South Africa, trying every forward in his squad and often playing three at a time. Monterrey midfielder Osvaldo Martinez was one option to fill that void this year, but he has managed just 12 minutes of Copa America football so far.
It was Martino's intention to attack to Brazil in the quarter-final. "I intend us to be play attacking [football] and [trying] to win the game," he had said the day before the game, but his side were simply outplayed, and were thus forced to hold on. "We played a totally different game to the one we'd planned for," he later confessed, admitting he thought his side had been lucky to advance.
Paraguay have reached the semi-finals having not yet been able to get out of first gear. They are yet to win a match in the competition, but not for the want of trying. "It is not the first time a national team has advanced without a win," Martino says. "It's not that we're looking for draws."
But draws are all Martino and Paraguay have found thus far. And with Venezuela likely sit back and hope to catch Martino's men on the break, the time has come for Tata to find an attacking blend to fire his side into the final this weekend. Marcelo Estigarribia has put in two fine performances on the left wing, but Martino may need creativity from elsewhere if his side are to get anywhere near a repeat of the goals they managed against Venezuela in the group stage, all three of which came from set pieces.
Midfielder Christian Riveros said this week said the team would dedicate any victory to former their teammate Cabanas. Gerardo Martino, meanwhile, will be hoping his team can manage one in spite of him.