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Last Updated: Monday, 23 August, 2004, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Paraguay's warriors hunt for gold
By Tim Vickery

Paraguay's Fredy Bareiro celebrates a goal
Fredy Bareiro celebrates a goal for Paraguay

Iraq's bid for gold in the Olympic football tournament has hit the headlines but the success of their semi-final opponents also has a fairytale quality about it.

Paraguayan football is a force of nature. Paraguay is a poor country with primitive infrastructure and a population little over five million.

Their mere presence in Greece is extraordinary. South America has just two places in the Olympics and they are very highly prized.

Brazil are desperate to win the football gold medal, the only title they lack.

In January's qualifying tournament Brazil needed just a draw from their final game to book their place and they were already talking about room-sharing arrangements in Athens.

Paraguay rendered such talk redundant with a 1-0 victory.

Paraguay's ability to punch above their weight is rooted in their mental strength.

A country surrounded by some of the traditional powers of world football, when they take the field, no matter who they face, they never show the slightest sign of an inferiority complex.

Paraguay have a collective warrior spirit which is envied - and frequently feared - all over the continent.

A story from the 1995 Copa America illustrates the mentality of the Paraguayan player.

South Korea's Lee Jung Youl  is upended by Paraguay's Cesar Ramirez
South Korea's Lee Jung Youl feels the force of Cesar Ramirez's challenge

They turned up for training in Maldonado only to find the stadium closed. So they shut off the access road outside the ground and used it to stage an improvised training session.

There is nothing pampered about the Paraguayans.

When it matters, they are seldom easily beaten, and increasingly they are adding attacking firepower to their traditional defensive resilience.

Absent from their Olympic squad are Roque Santa Cruz of Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen's rapidly emerging Nelson Haedo.

But even without these two excellent young strikers Paraguay have still managed nine goals in their four games on the way to Tuesday's semi-final.

Fredy Bareiro, nicknamed 'Zorro', has left his mark with vital goals in the last two games, and playmaker Osvaldo Diaz has the talent to establish himself as an important part of Paraguay's senior side.

There are plenty of other interesting players in the Paraguay squad.

Midfielder Edgar Barreto is classy and combative, and strikes the ball wonderfully well, while his brother Diego is a cool and competent goalkeeper.

Both Ernesto Cristaldo and Aureliano Torres supply options down the left side of the field.

Paraguay are now within reach of an Olympic medal although it will not necessarily transform them into world-beaters; after all, Chile won bronze four years ago and went on to finish bottom of the table in South America's 2002 World Cup qualifiers.

But getting on the podium will give Paraguayan football a moment of glory it richly deserves - even if it comes at the expense of the inspirational Iraqis.

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