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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 June 2006, 01:04 GMT 02:04 UK
Paraguay's football warriors
By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Paraguay

Nicolas Leoz
Nicolas Leoz stands proudly with the Copa America

Paraguay's pride in its football is mysteriously linked to its troubled past, and has given it a warrior-style determination to secure victory in the World Cup.

In a plush wood-panelled office lined with trophies the president of the South American Football Confederation tells me about the bull's testicle implanted in his chest.

Expansive hand gestures convey the size of the donor organ, tissue from which was used to repair a heart valve.

For good measure, my interviewee explains that his heart was patched again, this time using a chunk from a pig's ear.

Approaching 80 years of age, Nicolas Leoz is no ordinary interviewee, just as Paraguay is no ordinary nation.

This was my first visit to the small landlocked country, one of the poorest in South America.

'Mysterious'

A glance at the map reveals Paraguay sandwiched between two giants - Brazil and Argentina. To the north, Bolivia completes the encirclement. The geography is intimidating - and twice Paraguay has fought punishing wars with its larger neighbours.

Map of Paraguay

Perhaps because of that, Paraguayan pride courses fiercely through the veins.

Having moved beyond testicular small talk I asked Senor Leoz what was the key to understanding his country's football.

"Our history has been troubled," he said, "but football unites us and has helped us overcome the bad times in our nation's life. And whereas your English game is built on strength and tactics, our football is more alive, more crafty."

My regional guidebook had devoted only a few pages to Paraguay, describing it as "mysterious" - a vague adjective that made me suspect the authors had not really spent much time here. But it was striking just how many local people bought into the idea of their country as an enigma.

"Paraguayans are mystical," said 49-year-old Nicanor Duarte Frutos - a passionate football fan and also the nation's president.

President Duarte Frutos
We've learned to overcome adversity and to advance in spite of our pain

"Both on the pitch and in the history books," he told me, "you'll find a passionate people, full of spirit. We've learned to overcome adversity and to advance in spite of our pain".

Strong stuff for a football interview, but also understandable in a country weighed down by the baggage of history.

The president was speaking to me in the same elegant study used for 35 years by Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay's military dictator and the region's longest-serving 20th Century leader. He clung to power until 1989, since when democracy has slowly taken root.

Warrior spirit

On the streets of Asuncion the past mingles curiously with the fads and fashions of today. Perched sedately on the kerbside, wizened women sell textiles and ethnic handicrafts; beside them, excitable young men peddle DVDs and designer sunglasses.

What you hear is Spanish - the language of the colonisers - but also Guarani, the rich indigenous language that has been proudly preserved and is still spoken by all classes of society.

"When you really want to communicate something deeply, you say it in Guarani," explained Alejandra Pena, the curator of the football museum.

She said politicians tended to start their speeches in Spanish, before slipping into Guarani when the sparks began to fly. Against England, she added, the footballers would speak Guarani - presumably having been warned about David Beckham's Spanish.

Time after time when discussing the World Cup, people would make a virtue of the team's native Indian blood.

The very word "guarani" means "warrior". The history books say it was the term offered up by indigenous tribes when the Spanish asked them what kind of people they were.

Other Paraguayans invoke the warrior spirit in a different way, recalling conflicts of the more recent past.

"Our football team is hard and full of fire," one man told me, "because we fought three countries in the world famous War of the Triple Alliance."

No-surrender mentality

That 19th Century affair pitted Paraguay against Brazil, Argentina and Urguguay. Almost half the population was wiped out. The pain lingers, but so too does the pride - that a nation bowled over by war was able to clamber back to its feet.

This talk of war is not to suggest that Paraguay's players will launch a physical attack on their English opponents.

Rather, that memories of the past are used here to invoke a spirit of dogged against-the-odds defence.

Parade in Asuncion
A proud but 'mystical' people

In many ways it is similar to the World War II analogies beloved of tabloid sports reporters. Except that whereas in England many find such language inappropriate, in Paraguay everyone seems to share the no-surrender mentality.

"We will beat you," was the parting shot of a smiling President Duarte Frutos - who, by this stage of the interview, was giving his pre-match analysis in Guarani.

He said his players were not looking for a war with England, but they would triumph - probably by a single goal.

"Believe me," he said, "We will reach the final. Victory begins up here."

And as the President spoke he pointed to his head with mystical Paraguayan intent.




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