Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Paraguay 1998 -- The joy of defense

    As soccer fanatics, we are alive to all the nuances of the sport. We appreciate the intelligence of the man-marker as much as the brilliance of the playmaker; the sliding tackle thrills us as much as the dazzling dribble; we honor the perfect positioning of the keeper as well as the powerful strike from twenty yards out. Nil-nil is just as good as 3:2; we come for the play, the team strategy, the moments of individual excellence, the full football experience.

    Or so we claim. But let's face it: what we really love is the attack. (Ruud Doevendans, a former keeper, is an honorable exception.) Defense is admirable, and in theory you've got to have it, but when we sit down to watch soccer we want to see the teams go for goal. When Arsenal was winning game after game by 1-0, do you think they were known as "dynamic defensive Arsenal"? No, it was "boring boring Arsenal," and they were universally derided outside certain parts of North London. At the other end of the spectrum, the 1970 Brazilians were universally beloved -- not because they were great, but because they were so great on attack that they didn't need a defense. Elsewhere on this site you can read Jan Alsos' tribute to the marvelous 1982 Brazilians, which he calls "The Team of Dreams". At the end of the article, he writes, "Whenever people talk about great teams of previous World Cups, this Brazilian team of 1982 always seems to be mentioned. They failed to reach the semifinals, but won the hearts of millions of soccer fans world-wide." True enough, and if you read the article, you'll find out why. They were superbly talented, but on attack, not defense. And they went for goal, minute after minute, game after game. In fact, the article's only references to defense are to defensive errors!

    Perhaps forty years ago we might have been more discerning. The game was different then: attack was a way of life, and defense was a necessary evil. As late as the 1966 Final, England took 45 shots, West Germany 35. Try to imagine that today. Modern soccer, particularly at international level, is cautious; at the World Cup most teams play defensively as a matter of course, hoping to smother attacks rather than create them. The 4-2-4 became the 4-3-3, then the 4-4-2, then the 3-5-2 and the 4-5-1. And whatever formation they line up in, teams don't often care to risk. Every four years we yearn for the Brazilians (occasionally the Dutch or the Argentines) to set us free from the shackles; we always hope that somewhere will emerge a team committed to truth and beauty, a team unafraid to attack.

    But there are other kinds of special teams. And once in a very long while comes a team that makes defense more than a frustration, more than a necessity -- dare it be said? -- a joy. Paraguay 1998 was just such a team. They were that great rarity at international level: a team that played defensively not out of fear, not out of caution, but simply because that was where their strengths lay.

    Their best players, all in their prime, were from the back line. At center back, they had fire and ice: Celso Ayala of River Plate, aggressive, intense, combative all over the pitch, and Carlos Gamarra of Benfica, calm, precise, economical of movement. At right back was the smooth and versatile Francisco Arce of Palmeiras. And, of course, there was Jose Luis Chilavert of Velez Sarsfeld, captain of the team, thought by many to be the world's best keeper.

    There was some potential up front: Miguel Benitez, a mobile, creative striker from Espanyol in Barcelona; Jose Cardoso (also spelled Cardozo) of Toluca, a more traditional center-forward, leading scorer in the Mexican league; Jorge Campos (no relation to the Mexican keeper), an attack-minded midfielder/striker who played in the most unlikely of places, Beijing. But as far as the midfield went, well, all you need to know is that Roberto Acuņa, their most creative player, was nicknamed "The Bull." On attack the main weapon was the long ball, particularly the remarkably accurate punts of Chilavert.

    Their coach was Paulo Cesar Carpeggiani. Thin, elegant, always impeccably dressed, he had been a World Cup midfielder for Brazil -- not the brilliant sides of 1970 or 1982, but the dour, rugged side of 1974, a team widely viewed as having betrayed Brazil's commitment to attacking football. Carpeggiani had a reputation as a master tactician; he also knew where the strengths of the team lay, and coached accordingly. In the South American double round robin, they qualified with surprising ease, leading most of the way before relaxing into second place with 9 wins, 2 draws, and 5 losses. But they scored only 21 goals, fifth best in the group.

    Although they were drawn in the "Group of Death," with Spain, Nigeria, and Bulgaria, Paraguayan hopes were high. But the run-up to France was a disaster. Their last nine friendlies included eight against World Cup teams, and they won none of them. They were hammered by the Netherlands 5-1. The usual scoring problems prevailed; only twice in nine games did they get more than one goal. Carpeggiani was reduced at one point to calling in 38-year-old Julio Cesar Romero, hero of the 1986 team. Nothing seemed to work. And as if things weren't bad enough, Arce, one of the few players who could combine defense with attack, would miss at least the opening game. On the eve of the tournament few gave them a chance to advance.

    The opener was against Bulgaria. The Bulgarians, surprise semifinalists at USA 1994, had qualified from a relatively easy group, ahead of Russia. They were an aging team, with stars like Krasimir Balakov and Hristo Stoichkov on the downside of their careers. Striker Luboslav Penev and attacking midfielder Ilian Iliev were other significant threats, but at best this would be the team's last hurrah. Carpeggiani, going with his standard zonal 3-5-2, started three center backs: from left to right, Pedro Sarabia, Ayala, and Gamarra. Youngster Carlos Paredes was in a defensive midfield spot, with Acuņa as the playmaker, Campos and Julio Cesar Enciso as left and right wingbacks, Carlos Morales as an attacking midfielder, and Cardoso and Benitez up front.

    Bulgaria dominated the first half. Campos, more an attacker than a defender, was repeatedly beaten on the left; Sarabia covered well in the first 15 minutes or so, but then he too started to make mistakes, and it was left to Ayala, in outstanding form, to save the team time and again. Overall the team looked uncharacteristically jittery. At one point confusion in the box gave Stoichkov a free shot, and he hit the post; the team also gave up several unnecessary free kicks near goal. Chilavert only had to make one difficult save, on a free kick from Ivanov, but he had been lucky in the 7th minute when Iliev, free at the top of the box, had shot right at him. On offense there was nothing doing. The one real chance of the half came in the 42d minute: Enciso, who was quietly having a strong game on the right, broke up an attack, then sent it back to Acuņa, who launched a fine long ball to Benitez on the break. Benitez passed to Cardoso, but from the top of the box, with only the keeper to beat, he shot wide.

    Two minutes later, however, Carpeggiani made a key change. He removed Morales, who had been ineffective, and replaced him with Denis Caniza. He put Caniza in as left wingback and moved Campos up into a more attacking role; he switched Sarabia and Gamarra to bolster the left side of defense, and moved Enciso more into the center. Benitez dropped back a bit, where his agility could come into play. Realigned, Paraguay controlled the next 20 minutes. Enciso, Ayala and Gamarra shut the Bulgarians down; Caniza and Campos combined dangerously on the left; Benitez was suddenly everywhere; Acuņa looked more confident in attack. But the team characteristically lacked cohesion near the box, and no really good chances came. And when Paraguay's momentum flagged, holes in the defense appeared again. Penev missed a good chance after Stoichkov had beaten Sarabia. Even Ayala made a mistake, letting Balakov into the box to take a pass behind him; Gamarra covered just in time.

    But by now the older Bulgarians were starting to tire. At the other end, Paraguay got a superb free kick from Chilavert, just pushed over the bar by Zdravkov. In the final 10 minutes, Paraguay was the sharper squad. Substitute striker Julio Cesar Yegros brought some speed and energy, and the very best chance came in the 92d minute, where after a combination between Benitez, Acuņa, and Yegros, substitute Cesar Ramirez, with a free shot from 16 yards, shot right at the keeper. The game ended 0:0.

    Despite the solid second half, prospects were uncertain. A draw with Bulgaria wasn't too bad, and the attack probably needed time to get going; what was troubling was the inconsistent, sometimes tentative play of the defense. Overall Ayala and Gamarra had played well, and so had Enciso, but there had been too many breakdowns, and a more creative squad than Bulgaria would probably have put something on the board. Judging from the first game, Paraguay wasn't quite ready for prime time. And something had to happen soon, since Spain was coming up next: talent-wise, they were one of the best teams in the tournament, and they were hungry for a win, having been upset by Nigeria 3:2 in the opener.

    Building on the second half lineup, Carpeggiani started Gamarra, Ayala, and Sarabia from left to right across the back; Caniza as left wingback; Arce, fit for the first time, on the right, but with license to roam; Enciso as defensive midfielder and Acuņa as playmaker; Benitez as an attacking midfielder; Campos and Aristides Rojas from Union Santa Fe as strikers.

    It was obvious from the start that this was a different Paraguay. Spain, pushing the attack from the kickoff, came up empty time and again. Sarabia, having a superb first half, repeatedly frustrated Luis Enrique on the left of attack. Raul, the young Real Madrid star, tried to work his magic in the middle, but was shut down by Enciso and Acuņa. Gamarra was controlled and decisive, a tower of strength inside. Caniza, pulled way back on defense on the left, struggled a bit with the runs of Exteberria and Aguilera, but someone was always there to clean up.

    In the first 15 minutes, in fact, Paraguay was definitely the more dangerous team. Arce, given freedom of the pitch, seemed to be everywhere, breaking up moves before they could start and initiating effective counterattacks. In the 10th minute Gamarra almost scored on a header off a corner kick. Two minutes later Acuņa sent Campos through on the left, and his cross to the back post was just missed by Rojas.

    Spain countered by sending high balls into the area, where they could take advantage of the leaping ability of Luis Enrique and Juan Antonio Pizzi. Ayala, not at his best in the first half, had difficulty coping. In the 21st minute Gamarra, off balance, could only partially clear; Pizzi beat Ayala to the header, making Chilavert lunge high to his right to clear over the bar. In the next ten minutes Pizzi became a force: at one point he got past Ayala in the box, and Sarabia had to cover; a few minutes later, Ayala, frustrated, slid in on him from behind and was yellow carded. But Paraguay was creating counter chances. Benitez had a clear 20-yard shot; Ayala missed a half-chance after a free kick; Arce sent a fine pass to Rojas in the box and Aguilera was forced to make a last ditch stop. The majority of the action was in Paraguay's end, but Spain was nowhere near in control of the match.

    In the 45th minute came the most exciting sequence of the game, and one of the most remarkable of the whole tournament. Exteberria beat Caniza and crossed low into the box; Gamarra got his foot in but could only push the ball aside. Raul got possession, moved in on Chilavert from a moderate angle, and fired from close range. Chilavert, diving low to his right, made a magnificent reaction save, and the ball trickled off, rolling less than a foot from the goal line. Pizzi closed in for the sure goal, but from nowhere came Ayala with a spectacular, perfectly clean flying tackle. The ball was cleared, the chance was gone, and a few moments later the whistle blew for halftime.

    Anticipating a Spanish onslaught, Carpeggiani started the second half with a defensive substitution: Paredes for Campos. Spain predictably threw everything into the attack. Under the pressure, Sarabia and Arce seemed to tire, but Enciso came to the fore, breaking up Spanish attacks in midfield and near the box. Gamarra was commanding at the back, and Ayala, now in form, was fully his equal. Spain seemed to lose conviction; even when they had chances they didn't seem to know what to do with them. At one point Raul found himself unexpectedly free at the top of the box, and shot weakly at Chilavert; then Hierro shot from way too far out. Luis Enrique was finding more space, but he too seemed uncertain: in the 56th minute he shot right at the keeper and in the 67th his half-pass, half-shot was blocked by Ayala near the line. His best chance came two minutes later, as he beat Ayala to a high ball, but Chilavert saved neatly.

    With each minute Paraguay grew in confidence. In the 63rd Benitez, set up by Acuna, almost beat Zubizarreta; then Ayala nearly scored off a corner kick. In the final 15 minutes the Paraguayans seemed to be throwing themselves at every ball, feeding on Spanish desperation, creating dangerous counter attacks in the acres of space left behind. Only in stoppage time did Spain get a chance: Kiko rose over Ayala, but headed weakly to Chilavert. At the very end, Ayala was whistled for a foul right on the edge of the box. Replays showed the tackle had been clean, but the call stood, so Spain had one last chance. Hierro curled the free kick around the wall -- but fittingly it was blocked by Ayala. At the final whistle the Spaniards walked off with their heads down, and the Paraguayans exulted.

    Another 0:0, but what a difference! After the Bulgaria game, Paraguay were dull also-rans; now they were courageous underdogs. Words like "spirited" and "heroic" began to appear in the press, and the sense grew that this was a special and exciting side. And lucky, too: for up next was Nigeria, the ideal opponent. By beating Bulgaria, the Africans had clinched first place in the group, and figured to rest some of their stars. Moreover, they were exactly the sort of antagonist Paraguay needed: dazzling in attack, but undisciplined and unreliable on defense. Still, the South Americans needed a win to advance, and where would the goals come from?

    As it turned out, the first goal came immediately. With Acuņa still nursing an injured foot from the previous game, Carpeggiani decided to go with three attackers: Cardoso up top, Benitez and Hugo Brizuela from Argentinos Juniors playing just behind. Gamarra, Ayala, and Sarabia were again left-to-right, with Enciso and Paredes in the middle, Caniza and Arce on the wings. On the very first attack of the game, Benitez won a free kick to the right of the area. Arce flighted the ball perfectly, Ayala crashed in to head home, and in just 51 seconds Paraguay was ahead.

    Carpeggiani knew that one goal probably wouldn't be enough, so he stuck to his game plan, which was to attack. For the first time in the tournament, Gamarra and Sarabia pushed up into enemy territory. Enciso was looking strong in both attack and defense, and for the first 10 minutes the game, played at a leisurely pace, went Paraguay's way. Then Nigeria struck. Caniza, always the weak link on defense, was beaten on a pass from Sunday Oliseh to Tijana Babangida; Babangida cruised around a retreating Ayala and sent a perfect pass to Wilson Oruma, who came in totally unmarked for the equalizer. The breakdown was stunning and complete; had the need to go forward left the team soft at the back?

    It looked that way. Nigeria stepped up the pace, and a minute later Chilavert had to dive to his left to save from Oliseh. Taribo West beat Gamarra in the air on the ensuing corner and Chilavert saved again. In the 16th minute Sarabia was beaten, and grand old man Rashidi Yekini, all alone in the box, shot hard and low -- but too close to Chilavert, who saved with his legs.

    Paraguay was reeling; but Nigeria lacked the discipline to follow up. In the very next minute, a superb combination between Caniza and Benitez sent Cardoso in, and he fired past Rufai for an apparent go-ahead goal. But the flag was up, and the replay showed that he had indeed been very slightly offside. Still, the tide was momentarily stemmed, and Paraguay had the time to regain their composure at the back. Nigeria slowed their pace a bit, Caniza started to hold off Babangida, and Ayala and Gamarra looked their old selves. For the rest of the half, chances were about even: Nigeria had most of the possession, Paraguay relied on the long ball. A score of 1:1 at halftime was about right.

    In the second half, Carpeggiani changed tactics: same personnel, but short passes instead of long. It was the winning choice. Nigeria was loose as ever on defense, and Paraguay dominated the pitch. Arce and Enciso were consistently effective passers. Paredes, turned loose for the first time, showed himself a real attacking midfielder. Brizuela was inspired: he fired a great low shot, forcing a save from Rufai, then set up Caniza for a shot deflected for a corner. The game was there for the taking -- but one piece of luck was still necessary. In the 57th minute, Ayala, playing aggressively, found himself out of position; Arce and Enciso failed to cover, and suddenly Yekini was through again. With Chilavert at his mercy, he muffed the shot, rolling it weakly at the keeper.

    And that was that. Two minutes later Arce passed to Paredes, who made a fine individual run on the right, slowed, moved inside, and passed to Benitez at the top of the arc. Benitez paused, teed it up, and fired a wicked rising shot into the roof of the net. 2:1, and there could be only one winner. Nigeria didn't get close the rest of the way. In the 86th minute Rufai, under pressure from Cardoso, cleared weakly to Aristides Rojas; Rojas sent it back in the box for Cardoso, who turned and fired for the third goal. Paraguay had advanced.

    Advanced, but to face one of the worst possible opponents. France was built on defense and discipline, much too much like Paraguay for comfort. Their back line of Lizarazu, Desailly, Blanc, and Thuram was the best in the world, and how Paraguay were to score was a mystery. But there was one factor in their favor: Zinedine Zidane, the best playmaker in the tournament and France's one creative force, had been red-carded against Saudi Arabia, and was unavailable. The French themselves would undoubtedly face a struggle to put it in the net. In a knockout game, penalty kicks were always a possibility.

    Carpeggiani surprised by going back to almost the same lineup he had used against Bulgaria. Sarabia was on the left again, with Campos ahead of him at wingback; Enciso, Acuņa, and Paredes in midfield; Cardoso and Benitez up front. The difference was Arce, who had missed the first game, but was now in his regular right wingback position. The tactics were different, though. To this point Paraguay had given the opposing midfield some room, relying on the back line to set up counterattacks. Now they pressed all over the field, and were ready to advance at any time. The French were pressing too, and the result was a game as intense as any in the tournament.

    From the first minute it was evident that the French would struggle. With Zidane out, and little space to create, chances were rare. Paraguay was controlling the air, and Ayala was playing like a man possessed. The first half-chances came to Paraguay, on long shots by Paredes and Arce. The French poured forward as best they could. In the 15th minute some confusion between Gamarra and Ayala left David Trezeguet an open shot, but he was wide from 15 yards. Paraguay started to show some weakness on the right side of defense: Arce was struggling with Diomede, and Gamarra, not by nature a pressing player, was uncharacteristically tentative. Diomede forced a save from Chilavert; Yuri Djorkaeff shot just wide and later muffed a good opportunity from the top of the box. On the other side the speedy Thierry Henry was giving Sarabia trouble, and at one point Paredes had to come all the way back to cover.

    But for all the French attack, Paraguay still looked solid. Enciso and Acuņa were breaking up everything in the middle, and the team as a whole kept shutting down space. On the other hand, against an equally tough French defense, counterattacks were ineffective. In the 38th minute came the best chance: Enciso passed to Benitez, whose long pinpoint pass caught Cardoso in stride. But he had to hurry his shot, and Barthez coolly saved.

    With Paraguay unafraid to push forward, in the next minute came France's best chance: a lightning counterattack sent Henry between Ayala and Gamarra, and he had Chilavert all alone. He chipped neatly, but hit the post. Still Paraguay attacked, with even Sarabia moving up into enemy territory, but nothing materialized. In the final minute of the first half Henry got free on the right again, but was denied by Ayala's sliding tackle.

    The second half was more of the same: pressing, fast action, tight space, some half-chances. In the first 15 minutes Paraguay had a little more of the play, with Benitez, Arce, and Cardoso combining effectively. As the Paraguayan attacks faltered, bit by bit they were forced back on defense -- but that was where they felt most at home. What ensued was one of the great spectacles of the tournament. France, desperate to score, started throwing everyone into attack, and Paraguay put the defense in high gear. Flying blocks, aggressive clearances, precise tackles: it was Spain again, only more intense, and with more at stake. The level of energy was frightening. Every French attack met with the same response: you will not score. Paredes, Enciso, Ayala, Acuņa all sacrificed their bodies time and again. In the middle of it all, Gamarra was magnificently calm: his 74th minute tackle on Deschamps in the area was one for the ages. No one had ever played defense like this. It was dazzling, inspiring, and -- most remarkable of all -- breathtakingly clean. You could watch it forever, like Pele or Maradona. There were some counterattacks, too, but who cared? The center of the football world was the Paraguayan penalty area. In the welter France managed a couple of chances: in the 78th minute Trezeguet got past Gamarra, but shot just wide; in the 82nd Djorkaeff got past Ayala, but Gamarra was there. Frustrated by the heroic resistance, the French gradually lost precision in attack. By stoppage time most of the play was Paraguay's.

    Nil-nil after ninety minutes. All the substitutions had been used: Pires, Boghossian, and Guivarc'h for Henry, Petit, and Diomede; Yegros, Caniza, and Rojas for Campos, Paredes, and Cardoso. But you knew tactics weren't going to decide this one. It would be luck, or inspiration, or guts. France had outshot Paraguay 22-5, and seemed no nearer a goal than the opening whistle; yet they showed no signs of discouragement. Paraguay seemed tireless, and if they were unlikely to score themselves, they appeared to be ready to deny the opposition indefinitely.

    The first overtime was predictably ragged. France needed some time to regroup, and Paraguay, although they had a good portion of the play, created only one chance, with Acuņa firing wide. In the final five minutes the French started to reassert their dominance. First Enciso was forced to deflect Djorkaeff's free kick; two minutes later a loose ball in the area was seized on by Trezeguet, but he shot weakly. Then the whistle blew, and France had 15 more minutes.

    Paraguay attacked early in the second overtime, but the game soon settled down to the basics: France in assault, Paraguay holding the bridge. The action was, if possible, more spellbinding than ever. France tried high crosses, short passes, inside, outside, everywhere, and always a Paraguayan was there to block or deflect. First Acuņa, then Gamarra, then Chilavert, Ayala, Chilavert again, Ayala again, then Ayala twice more, then Sarabia, Gamarra twice, and Gamarra yet again, then Caniza, Ayala, Sarabia. Paraguay was sparkling, luminous, impenetrable. Seven minutes to penalty kicks, and the great grand triumph of defense.

    Then, suddenly, it was over. Pires made a move on the right, and chipped into the box; Trezeguet headed neatly down, and Laurent Blanc, almost the last person you'd expect to be there, slammed it home from 7 yards. A golden goal, fair and square, and France was in the quarterfinals. The cameras showed Blanc running wild with joy, then Chilavert on his back, looking at the sky. More shots: Blanc's teammates joining the celebration, Chilavert getting up, Barthez running the length of the pitch, Chilavert hugging Arce, Platini smiling in the crowd, and then...Roberto Acuņa on the ground, his head buried in his hands, weeping uncontrollably. And Chilavert, the captain, the last line of defense, massive, tremendous, standing over him, literally pulling him to his feet. Chilavert was shouting at him. You couldn't read the lips, but you knew exactly what he was saying: "We are champions too! Stand and be proud! We are heroes, we are Paraguayans!" It was, for me, the single most memorable image of France '98. What a footballer! What a man!

    And what a team. Paraguay is back for Korea/Japan, and most of the heroes are back too, but somehow I don't think it'll be the same. Ayala, Gamarra, Arce, Acuņa, Benitez, and Cardoso are all over 30; Chilavert is suspended for the first game. And the coaching situation looks doubtful. Sergio Makarian, who took them to qualification, was fired after bad results against Venezuela and Colombia. He's been replaced by Cesare Maldini, who speaks no Spanish, and was an unpopular choice among the players. Spain is waiting for revenge, and Slovenia wants to write a story of their own. Don't expect Paraguay to advance.

    And yet...Paredes has emerged as a fine midfielder, and there's an exciting young striker named Roque "Baby Goal" Santa Cruz. Arce was recently a finalist for player of the year in South America. Sarabia, Caniza, and Enciso are now in their prime. No team anywhere can play with more spirit. And Maldini is Italian, nurtured in the most celebrated defensive tradition of them all. He just might be the right man for the job. Either way, I'll be in their corner, in honor of their epic performance in France. When you plan your World Cup viewing, please make sure to include group B. And when you spend a pleasant evening remembering special World Cup teams of the past, please make sure to include Paraguay 1998 -- the team that made defense a joy to watch.



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