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
Read earlier columns
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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