José Luis Chilavert. Roque Santa Cruz. Óscar Cardozo. Save for a short list of cult heroes who captured the hearts of many for different reasons – and Ronaldinho with his newfound Paraguayan ‘identity’ – South America’s landlocked corazón is not blessed with the biggest names in the game; well, not to the same extent as its neighbours. Sandwiched geographically between behemoths Brazil and Argentina, Paraguay has been largely forgotten about in the footballing world.
Intrigued by Emmanuel Adebayor’s move to Primera champions Club Olimpia, which saw him join forces with former Manchester City strike partner Santa Cruz, we conducted a little research into the popularity and history of the beautiful game in Paraguay.
Smaller teams, larger crowds?
Despite the popularity of European leagues across much of South America, national divisions take precedence. In Paraguay, although the Argentinian Primera División is also relatively well-followed, much more importance is placed on local leagues.
We spoke to Paraguayan football expert Ralph Hannah, who gave us an insight into support across divisions. The country’s ‘big two’ – Cerro Porteño (led by former national team defender Francisco Arce) and the aforementioned Olimpia – regularly draw in the larger crowds, but attendances do vary elsewhere.
Hannah clarified: “While [Paraguayan] Primera División games sometimes have low attendances, there is huge popularity in the countryside for local games. Often whole villages watch these matches as it is the main social event of the weekend.”
In these communities, the ‘Heart of Football’ is more evident than ever. Villagers head out in droves to watch their local team take to the field, cheering on those representing their community. This is a way of life for many, enjoying football in its purest form.
A contested past
The city of Luque, near capital Asunción, remains the seat of CONMEBOL, the governing body of football in South America. Since its arrival in the late 19th century, the sport has remained a constant in Paraguay.
The most popular account of football’s emergence in Paraguay begins with Dutchman William Paats, who is said to have brought a football back to Asunción in 1888 after a trip to Buenos Aires. At first, the game was exclusive to the country’s elite, though over the years it spread through to the other classes.
Another account, however, claims that English railroad workers in the region of Borja brought the sport to Paraguay two years before Paats in 1886, as they organised games of football against local communities. Interestingly, the English side called themselves ‘Everton’ – a homage to the Liverpudlian side.
Support for the sport gained pace as small tournaments were hosted at Asunción’s plaza de armas, drawing in huge crowds. Because of their success, in 1902 William Paats founded Paraguay’s first professional football club, Club Olimpia. As well as being the oldest, Olimpia are also the country’s most successful team having won 45 Primera División titles, along with eight international tournaments including three Copa Libertadores.
Within a decade of Olimpia’s conception, the number of clubs had grown, and the Paraguayan Football Association was founded. Paraguay’s first international fixture came against Argentina came in Asunción in 1919, while its FA joined CONMEBOL in 1921 and FIFA in 1925.
Nowadays, Paraguay is home to over 1600 teams that compete in its league system, and the national team has had success on the international stage. La Albirroja have appeared in eight FIFA World Cups, most notably reaching the quarter-finals in 2010. They have two Copa Américas to their name, along with a silver medal from the Olympic games in 2004, making them the fourth most successful South American nation of all time, behind Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.
The Estadio Defensores del Chaco, Paraguay’s national stadium, has seen incredible talent take to the field over the last century. Arsenio Erico, the top scorer in Argentine first division history, is considered the country’s best ever footballer, although his time on the international stage was sadly cut short due to a string of injuries and following that the outbreak of the First World War. José Luis Chilavert is perhaps their most well-known international, characterised by his eccentricity and his abnormal goalscoring record as a goalkeeper.
The Primera has attracted some big names from overseas in recent years, most notably Spanish forward Daniel Güiza, who joined Cerro in 2013, and Emmanuel Adebayor, who made the move to Olimpia in February 2020.
According to Hannah, such transfers can be met with mixed responses. “I think there is actually a lot of trepidation with the big signings because there have been so many hit or miss over the years. In the case of Adebayor people were very excited – check out the airport reception – but there were people wondering how he might perform.”
The Togolese, who now holds the title of the highest paid player in Paraguayan football history, struggled at his last club, having been unable to find the net in his four total appearances.
One success story, however, has been the homecoming of Santa Cruz to Asunción. Having started his career at Olimpia before moving to Europe and playing in Germany, England, Spain and later Mexico, the striker returned to Olimpia in 2016. Since making his second debut for the club, his goalscoring form has also made a comeback and continued into a fourth year.
Overall, despite being somewhat overshadowed by neighbours Brazil and Argentina, Paraguay and its football scene have a lot to offer. From rural communities coming together for lower league clashes, to the reception of stars who have made a name for themselves in Europe, the nation is united in its love for the game.