CAPETOWN, South Africa – He’s from Argentina, but next month his name will be heard in every corner of Paraguay.
Gerardo Martino, the coach of Paraguay’s national team that will compete in the World Cup in South Africa, is being counted on to take a landlocked country of 6.5 million to a place it’s never been: the quarterfinals.
Paraguayan Soccer Association officials hired Martino in February of 2007 to lead La Albirroja’s charge to its fourth straight World Cup – a feat accomplished by just four other teams in the Western Hemisphere: Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and the United States.
Martino, 47, is no stranger to Paraguayan soccer, as he coached two local club teams – Club Libertad and Club Cerro Porteño – to a combined six titles from 2002 to 2006. Martino arrived from Argentina, where he made a name for himself during successful stints with second-tier club teams Brown de Arrecifes, Platense and Instituto de Córdoba before moving to Argentina’s northern neighbor in 2002.
And success has followed him to the national team. The Paraguayans finished third in the 10-team CONMEBOL region by going 10-3-5 to finish with 33 points. Paraguay’s 10 wins tied Chile for most in CONMEBOL, and its 16 goals allowed were the second fewest in CONMEBOL, behind Brazil’s 11.
“The team owes its success to its trainer,” said defender Antolín Alcaraz to FIFA.com. “If this team now shows solidarity, if its members know how to complement one another and if there is true friendship outside the soccer field, it’s thanks to him.”
Martino understands the game as a coach, but also as a player. His playing career began at Newell’s Old Boys Athletic Club in Argentina in 1980. Eleven years later, he played for Spain’s Club Deportivo Tenerife for one season before returning to Newell’s for the next three seasons. He ended his career spending a season with Chile’s O’Higgins (1995) and Ecuador’s Barcelona (1996).
“Psychologically, he is very good with the players,” said Alcaraz.
The preliminary, 30-man roster Martino submitted to FIFA this week shows he’s blending experience with younger, promising players.
Martino included Denis Caniza, the 35-year-old defender for Mexico’s León who has played for the national team a total of 79 games since 1996; Aldo Bobadilla, 34, goalkeeper for Medellín’s Deportivo Independiente; Roque Santa Cruz, a 28-year-old striker for England’s Manchester City; and Lucas Barrios, striker for Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, who at 25 is expected to make his World Cup debut.
“Nobody can have any doubts about Lucas Barrios’ capacity,” Martino said during the press conference in which he announced the selection of the striker who has scored 23 goals in 35 games during the Bundesliga season.
Barrios, along with Santa Cruz, Nelson Haedo and Cristian Riveros, will be counted on to compensate for the loss of forward Salvador Cabañas, the team’s leading scorer during qualifying with six goals. But he’s sidelined indefinitely after being shot in the head at a bar in Mexico City on Jan. 25.
Martino played for Newell’s Old Boys under the same coach who now oversees the Chilean team, Marcelo Bielsa, and has taken what he’s learned from the man nicknamed “El Loco,” according to Adrián Coria, his technical assistant.
“Gerardo [Martino] has remembered much of what he learned under the guidance of Marcelo [Bielsa], especially about leading the offense, recovering the ball, and not allowing the rival team to get comfortable,” Coria told FIFA.com. “He very much emphasizes the physical aspect of the game.”
And Paraguay can’t afford to be bullied if it’s to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in eight World Cups. Paraguay, ranked 30th in the world, opens Group F against defending champion and fifth-ranked Italy on June 14, followed by matches against 38th-ranked Slovakia on June 20 and 78th-ranked New Zealand on June 24.
“The secret to our qualification was the fact that the players and all the professionals involved with the national team went about their job responsibly and with a minimum of fuss”, said Martino. “Anyone who coaches a national team does so for one of two reasons: to stay in the job or go down in history. I’ve chosen the second option.”