On Saturday Antolín Alcaraz made history, becoming the first Paraguayan footballer to appear in an FA Cup Final and 90 minutes later became the first guaraní to win the famous trophy. On the eve of the final he had been all but sidelined with injury so his place in the victorious Lactics line-up was somewhat unexpected, a fitting way to describe his whole footballing career. He didn’t come through the youth ranks of a club and didn’t even sign a professional contract until he was 20 when he joined Portuguese club Beira Mar. It was a case of ‘third-time lucky’ with stints at Racing Club and Fiorentina falling through as both clubs going bankrupt just as he was set to sign, as if the defender had a some kind of reverse Midas Touch. Here we recount the glorious rise of the man who didn’t set out to be a footballer.
Football for Antolin Alcaraz started in the bowels of the Paraguayan league system with Teniente Fariña de Ñemby, a club that if you try to Google their fixtures or what league they are in today you are unlikely to find anything. In an interview given to ABC Color a few years ago the left-footer mentioned “I just started playing with my friends. It wasn’t my intention to try and move up the footballing ladder”. In fact it was another ladder he was trying to scale, he had moved to Ñemby just south of the capital Asunción to work as a builder’s assitant leaving behind his life in the quiet town of San Roque Gonzalez (population 12,000) to try and make some money in construction, a common theme amongst young Paraguayan men from the countryside.
Call it fate, luck, divine intervention but in 2001 he was spotted by Carlos Bruni who put his faith in Alcaraz and took him on his first ever trip abroad to try out with Racing Club in neighbouring Argentina. Alcaraz remembers it as a “very hard” experience being so far from his family and after a year he couldn’t sign because of the financial problems at the Avellaneda club. Bruni took his player to Italy where he has contacts – the businessman remains Alcaraz’s agent to this day and has strong ties to both the Italian-Paraguayan and Anglo-Paraguayan Chambers of Commerce – a month at Fiorentina ended in tears again, like Racing the Viola went bankrupt and Alcaraz still hadn’t played senior football. He had a trial at Palermo before coming back to Paraguay with his hands empty.
By now he had got a taste of the trips to Europe and had faith in his own ability, especially the month in Florence where in the short space of time the player stated “I learned a lot”. He perservered and finally on 17 August 2003 Antolin Alcaraz made his professional debut for Beira Mar in a 1-0 defeat against Maritimo. He would only make one other appearance in the 2003/04 season yet things changed under Yorkshireman Mike Wadsworth, the former assistant to Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle United took charge of Beira Mar at the start of the following season. In his first game under the new boss the Paraguayan defender got on the scoresheet with what would become his trademark, a header from a corner against none other than Portuguese giants Benfica. Even when Wadsworth left just a month later the performances of Alcaraz had earned him his spot on the teamsheet, and he would remain there even after they were relegated. That next season in the Segunda Liga was the making of him – the team went on a tremendous run losing just two games in 34 games as they won the league. Alcaraz played a part in 32 matches and one of the losses was a game he was absent for. By the time they returned to the top division he was captain and this time he was too good to return to the Segunda – with Beira Mar relegated again he moved to Belgium and Bruges.
He played for Club Bruges 86 times including 16 games in European competition during his time there they finished third twice and second in 2009/10, which must have helped convince both Roberto Martinez and Gerardo Martino of his quality. He was signed by Wigan Athletic just shortly after being called up to the provisional World Cup squad. He had played his first competitive international in the World Cup Qualifiers, so unknown to his fellow Paraguayans that upon his call up to the national team I remember some friends assume he was another one of Tata Martino’s nationalized players! In South Africa he became the 18th Paraguayan to score at a World Cup with a thumping header against Italy and played every minute of the historic run to the Quarter-Finals.
The stint at Wigan has seen the centre-back’s stock keep rising (apart from an unfortunate spitting incident in 2011) as he saved the club from relegation last season with a header against Blackburn Rovers that relegated the fellow Lancashire side in their place. This year the drop threatens again but the table below proves that if the Lactics do get relegated it will be in spite of Alcaraz who has been one of Martinez’s best performers.
And of course on Saturday he climbed the Wembley steps as an FA Cup winner, not bad for the man who originally said he didn’t want to climb the footballing ladder.
By Ralph Hannah
Author’s Note: Quotes translated from this excellent article in ABC in 2010 - http://www.abc.com.py/articulos/la-vida-de-antolin-alcaraz-197741.html