The Argentine coach has turned around the fortunes of his adopted nation, and made them formidable opponents for the best teams in the worldCOMMENT
By Daniel Edwards, Copa America correspondent
In disarray and at a footballing nadir four years ago, the transformation of the Paraguayan national team has been nothing short of staggering. The nation has never been short of quality players and stunning sides; but now with Gerardo Martino at the helm, their Copa America semi-final is further evidence of how the Argentine has whipped the Guarani into shape and made them a match for any team in the world.
Things were rather different less than half a decade ago. Paraguay had looked in good shape in the last edition of the Copa America, beating Colombia and the United States comfortably and qualifying behind Argentina from Group C. At this point, however, it all went wrong. A team boasting the likes of Roque Santa Cruz, Salvador Cabanas and Julio dos Santos was humiliated 6-0 by an under-strength Mexico team in the quarter-final, played off the park by Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the rest of the Tricolor side and condemned to an early exit.
It was certainly a rough start for the man they call 'El Tata', who had taken control of the Seleccion just four months earlier from Uruguayan Anibal Ruiz after the latter's resignation. Little by little, however, the coach began to impose his own personality and style on the squad, and the benefits continue to be reaped in a team which has proved almost impossible to beat.
Born in Rosario, a legend of local club Newell's Old Boys and a student and disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, Martino nevertheless made his name coaching in Paraguay, and understands the nation inside out. The landlocked country has never been an easy place for foreign coaches to take control; for one thing the local tongue Guarani is favoured over Spanish on the pitch and in the dressing room, while the culture borrows far more heavily from local, Amerindian traditions than their European-dominated neighbours to the south. Success breeds understanding though, and with four Paraguayan titles in five years coming into the job, nobody could doubt Martino's pedigree.
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Since taking over he has overseen a quiet revolution in the side, focusing on a strong core in the team, quick distribution to the flanks and no little steel in the middle of the pitch; the inclusion of street-fighters such as Nestor Ortigoza in the line-up is a testament to this philosophy. This has allowed the international-class strikers at Paraguay's disposal to shine secure in the knowledge that behind them there is safety and security.
Just ask Spain, Italy, Brazil or Argentina, who with no less than 12 World Cup titles between them struggled to break down the Guarani resistance. The Albiceleste fell in 2009 in a match that almost left them out of South Africa, Italy and Brazil both failed to beat Martino's boys in major tournaments, while the world champions just squeezed through last summer with a narrow 1-0 quarter final victory.
'El Tata' is a terrific motivator, an educated tactician and, not insignificantly, a fierce disciplinarian who is not afraid to lay down the law - just ask Oscar Cardozo, forced to watch this Copa on TV after falling foul of the Argentine. With four straight draws the Paraguayans have hardly set the world alight in 2011, but they remain a tough prospect and against Venezuela in tonight's semi-final they must be confident of meeting finalists Uruguay in River's Monumental home on Sunday.
You have to look back to 1979 to find the last time Paraguay appeared in and won a Copa America final, an open wound for a nation that few can match in terms of passion for the beautiful game. The fans are behind their heroes and expectant; and if they do go on to triumph, the bespectacled Rosarino who sits on the bench deserves to be exalted as a hero of the Guarani nation.