On Monday evening, Chiqui Arce’s contract as manager of the Paraguay national team was rescinded by the APF (Parguayan FA) just two days after Paraguay suffered their third defeat in their fifth World Cup Qualifier. The head of the APF, Juan Angel Napout called it a “difficult decision” and it was genuine comment because the decision wasn’t really whether Arce should stay or go but what do the APF value more, the short-term or the long-term. Ultimately, as is so often the case in top level football, the desire for immediate results won out over the long-term vision.
Chiqui Arce was brought in just under a year ago and spoke of a ‘project’ to change Paraguay’s play from the traditional counter-attacking and set-piece-reliant style to something more attractive and reminiscent of Brazil or even Barcelona. It seemed a good move as Paraguay’s golden generation was ageing, Roque Santacruz, Justo Villar and Paulo Da Silva were now in the twilight of their careers and it was time to nurture a new generation of young players through the state-of-the-art high performance centre in Ypané. In fact, Chiqui Arce would spend two days a week there with domestic-based players for most of his time at the helm often accompanied by 100 youngsters forming the U15s, U17s and U20s teams. The trend in international football seemed to support the Arce-way, Uruguay had just won the Copa América with the longest-serving coach in the CONMEBOL region to follow-up a World Cup semi-final. Earlier this year in Africa, Zambia were crowned champions of the continent thanks to almost a decade of work.
Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino is arguably the greatest coach of the Paraguay national team thanks to their historic World Cup Quarter-Final finish in 2010, an incredible result for a country of 6 million people rated as the 2nd-poorest nation in South America. But while Martino got an excellent nucleus of players together and turned Paraguay into a well-organised team with tactical discipline he didn’t invest much in the future. Other than the 2009 U20s World Cup appearance, Paraguay have been desperately poor in youth football since winning the silver medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004. Martino realised too that he had little to work with, when Salvador Cabañas was ruled out of South Africa he turned to Argentine-born Lucas Barrios and fast-tracked citizenship. There is nothing wrong with nationalising players born in other countries, the reality of the 21st century is that borders are much more imaginary than ever before, but Martino’s penchant for picking players from his home country proved just how small the pool of international level players there were within Paraguayan borders. Then of course there is the style of play, the albirroja reached the Copa América final without winning a game and during Martino’s 70-game reign they only averaged 1.09 goals per game, in Arce’s 12 games that was up to 1.25 and the win ratio (admittedly skewed by the poor quality opposition in friendlies) was up to 58% from Tata’s 34%. But one thing Gerardo Martino always did was ‘win when it matters’.
The pressure of Brazil 2014
Arce had public pressure on him from the start, partly for not being from the Rio de la Plata region (all the top clubs here have Argentinian or Uruguayan coaches) and for getting off to a perceived poor start in the qualifiers, losing to Peru and drawing at home with Uruguay. He was also a victim of increased expectation as Paraguayan football fans have become spoiled in recent years qualifying for the last four World Cups. When Arce went to France 1998 as a player he was just the second group of Paraguayans to be on the world’s highest stage in ten attempts. This year there is added expectation because of the destination; Brazil borders Paraguay and it will be the first World Cup in South America for 36 years meaning everybody in CONMEBOL wants to be at the party on their doorstep. After five games Paraguay are penultimate in the nine-team group with four points and their qualification hopes are hanging in the balance. Juan Angel Napout and the APF must have been feeling the pressure of Brazil too, the money that World Cup qualification generates for the association to help develop domestic football is vital if the Guaraní want to maintain their status as one of the best on the continent. The top brass knew that now was the moment to make a decision, either continue with Chiqui Arce or let him go so a new coach would have time to resurrect Paraguay’s qualification hopes.
The APF took a very difficult decision and one that is understable considering the results, it is also highly risky. The worst case scenario now is that a high-profile and well-paid coach comes in but fails to qualify, leaving Paraguay penniless and without the conditions to bring through a new crop of players. Under Arce at least they could have taken solace that they would be in good stead for 2018. Personally I can understand people’s frustration at Arce’s lack of results (and the comprehensive manner of the defeats which left bitter taste in the mouth) but I believed in his long-term vision. He inherited a team in transition lacking a natural leader to instill the traditional ‘garra’ into the side and seriously lacking in quality players. As mentioned above, achieving aims at international football takes time, it should be remembered too that the Paraguayan side that went to the World Cup in 1998 had began life together as the Olympic team in 1992 under Sergio Markarian. Ultimately success must be sown in the youth team fields if rewards are to be reaped. Chiqui Arce was a victim of time, he needed more than 10 months and 12 games. The APF were victims of the times, with major tournaments every two years and a population craving results, they couldn’t wait any longer.
By Ralph Hannah