By Jay Mwamba
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Paraguay will go into the finals hobbled by the absence of their most influential player, two-time World Goalkeeper of the Year Jose Luis Chilavert, for their two opening matches, against South Africa and Spain.
It’s a major setback that could cost them dearly in an evenly balanced group whose other member is Slovenia.
The hulking and quick-tempered Chilavert will be serving out the remainder of a four-match FIFA ban for spitting at Brazilian fullback Roberto Carlos in a South American qualifier last August.
For Paraguay, who will be led to Korea by Italy’s France ’98 coach Cesare Maldini, Chilavert’s unavailability should amount to a double loss as they attempt to better their modest World Cup record of one second round appearance in four previous attempts.
An intimidating presence between the posts, the 6-foot-3 goalie also doubles as the squad’s set-piece and penalty specialist with great effect.
Chilavert, who’s 36 and the captain of the side, was among the top dozen scorers in the South American qualifiers with four goals from penalties and free kicks.
Overall, he ranks as the highest-scoring goalkeeper in history at the international level with eight goals to his name in competitive matches since earning his first cap in 1989.
In the absence of their emotional team leader against the very beatable South Africans and Group B favorites Spain, the burden of Paraguayan expectation is likely to fall on a corps of veterans — and one upcoming star.
Most were at France ’98. They include Francisco Javier Arce, a 30-year-old defender from Brazilian club Palmeiras; Greek-based center half Carlos Alberto Gamarra; hardman Celso Raf’l Ayala of crack Argentine side River Plate; Real Zaragoza schemer Robert Miguel Acuna, and forward Jose Saturnio Cardozo, who plies his trade with Mexican outfit Toluca.
But a good deal of the spotlight vacated by Chilavert should be focused on Roque Santa Cruz, at age 20 the youngest member of the squad.
The gangly Bayern Munich forward with silky skills is the emerging star of Paraguayan football. Discovered at the 1999 World Youth Cup finals in Lagos, Santa Cruz cut his teeth in the qualifiers, scoring three goals in the process.
With Chilavert in the fold, Paraguay finished fourth in the 10-nation South American qualifiers. But most impressively, they were the only side not outclassed by the brilliant Argentines, playing out two draws with the in-form former champs.
Uruguayan Sergio Markarian guided the Paraguayans to a 9-3-6 (win, draw, loss) record en route to Japan/Korea but still got the sack.
How his former charges react to his successor Maldini — the father of the great Italian defender Paolo Maldini — remains a matter of conjecture. If anything, however, the new boss from a nation that turned ruthless defending into an art form should tighten up the Paraguayan backline.
In qualifying for their fifth finals, the South Americans scored only six more goals (29) than they conceded (23).
Paraguay was one of the 13 pioneers at the inaugural finals in Uruguay in 1930. But they’ve been infrequent participants since, with rare appearances in 1950, ’86, and ’98 before booking a berth at the ’02 tournament.
Chilavert’s goalkeeping heroics — he conceded just one goal in the first round — took them into the second round at France ’98 where they extended the hosts into overtime before Thierry Henry’s “Golden Goal” killed them off.
Although the big goalie has been languishing in the French Second Division with Strasbourg, Paraguay will need him again to make an impact in Asia.
Slovenia’s consistency impressive
Slovenia are the latest of the former Yugoslav republics to reach the World Cup finals. They’ve also been the most consistent of the sides from that troubled region over the last two years.
Drilled by the youthful Srecko Katanec, the tiny Alpine country announced its arrival on the international stage at Euro 2000, where a 2-1 loss to Spain, sandwiched between ties with Yugoslavia (3-3) and Norway (0-0), was their only low point.
Slovenia get a second shot at Raul’s highly touted Spain in what will be their World Cup debut in Gwangju on June 2. Also looming on the horizon in Group B are South Africa and Paraguay, who will have goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert back for their final group match.
Says Katanec of the challenges ahead: “I’m neither satisfied nor unsatisfied with the draw [because] if our team is well prepared we can surprise everyone.”
While the football world doesn’t expect much from the nation of 2 million, a good result against a Spanish side that doesn’t always play up to its great potential could be the perfect start for Katanec’s men.
They can derive inspiration from Croatia’s stunning debut four years ago. The first of the ex-Yugoslav republics to qualify for the World Cup, the Croats made a splash at France ’98, going all the way to the semifinals and eventually finishing third.
But unlike Croatia, who had a deep side in France spearheaded by eventual top scorer Davor Sukor, Katanec has a small talent pool at his disposal.
One player, though, the Benfica attacking midfielder Zlatko Zahovic, boosts world-class pedigree. Much traveled, with championship medals from Yugoslavia (Partizan Belgrade), and Portugal (FC Porto) from his many stops in Europe, Zahovic is Slovenia’s most celebrated player.
With his intimate knowledge of Spanish football and impressive scoring record, the graceful, albeit occasionally fiery ace, could be Katanec’s trump card in the opener against the Spaniards.
At last count, the 30-year-old Zahovic had chalked up 27 goals from some 55 internationals. He struck six times in 10 Euro 2000 qualifiers and three times in the finals co-hosted by Holland and Belgium.
Slovenia’s other key players are Marinko Galic, the team’s most seasoned defender with over 50 caps, and the rangy Isr’li-based striker Milan Oster.
Galic’s role, will be to steady and organize the defense, while Oster, with his penchant for opportunistic strikes, may be worth a goal or two in the bargain.
To reach Japan/Korea ’02, Slovenia eclipsed their former masters Yugoslavia, Switzerland, the Faroe Islands and Luxembourg for the runners-up position in a qualifying group won by Russia. They then defeated Romania in the playoffs.
(Each week Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist. The teams profiled to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal and France.)