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Aníbal Ruiz could sense something special within the Paraguay camp. Days before the 2006 World Cup was set to begin, Ruiz, a Uruguay-born tactician who took over the Paraguay reigns, was convinced that his team were going to turn heads in the group stage, and possibly in the knockout stages too.

Paraguay were drawn into Group B with England, Sweden and Trinidad & Tobago. Their first opponent were the Three Lions, one of the pre-tournament favourites. However, unlike previous Paraguayan teams that made the round of 16, this was a squad loaded with quality and an entertaining style that matched its players’ flair.

“Going to the World Cup means travelling with dreams and ambitions,” said Ruiz. “Straight away we come up against one of the favourites [England]. We want to measure ourselves against the best. It is tremendous motivation, and I’m very confident we’ll do it well.”

“If we get out of the group, then we’ll go into the second round looking to play our football with a bit of joy,” proclaimed defender Carlos Gamarra. “[We’ll be] trying to win rather than hanging on and hoping.”

Paraguay had some brilliant players in 1998 and 2002. Even though Ruiz’s side was not an ultra-attacking team, it was a lot more organised and had some special youngsters coming through the ranks, such as 22-year-old Nelson Valdez and 24-year-old Roque Santa Cruz, although his career has been overshadowed by a myriad of injuries.

Goalkeeper Justo Villar established himself within the team, and although he was shorter than most traditional keepers, his reflexes were cat-like. The two centre-backs in front of him, Gamarra and Julio Cáceres, were smart defenders with the ball on the ground but were not exactly aerial threats against England’s more commanding forwards.

None of the aforementioned worries were a significant concern during qualifying, however. The Guaraní finished in fourth place and handily defeated a few of CONMEBOL’s giants. Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay also qualified for the World Cup, but they all dropped points to La Albirroja. Some of the matches, such as the 4-1 victory over Uruguay in Asunción, were lopsided in favour of the Paraguayans. Those results led to Ruiz being named the South American coach of the year in 2005.

Armed with experience and youth, Paraguay was set to usher in a new era and provide one last happy memory for the veterans in the group.

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Unfortunately, less than three minutes into their World Cup journey, Gamarra inadvertently headed David Beckham’s free-kick past Villar to gift England the lead in the Group B opener. Paraguay’s number one also left with an injury a few moments later.

However, the English were put under unexpected pressure as Paraguay swarmed the final third and pressed for an equaliser. Valdez and Roberto Acuña tested Paul Robinson, but in the end, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men were victorious.

A Villar-less Paraguay needed a result over Sweden to keep their World Cup dreams intact. Resilient defending and a goalkeeping clinic by Aldo Bobadilla kept those aspirations within sight. That was the cue for Valdez, Santa Cruz and Jorge Nuñez to take over the game. The Swedes had an even bigger storm to weather thanks to the Paraguayan trio, who launched attack after attack towards the Swedish goal. Bobadilla was a spectator for most of the game, even in the second half when Paraguay ramped up the pressure.

Finally, after 89 minutes, Freddie Ljungberg crushed Paraguayan hearts everywhere with a dramatic winner at the back post on the cusp of stoppage time to assure Paraguay’s first-round exit.

Paraguayans were furious with Ruiz. After back-to-back appearances in the round of 16, this was a disaster in their eyes. Losing Villar and dealing with pre-tournament injuries were significant, but there were positives.

Firstly, Paraguay won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics while Ruiz was in charge of the senior side. Edgar Barreto, Aureliano Torres and Julio Manzur were members of the Olympic team that narrowly lost to Argentina in the gold medal game. All three remained with the national team under Tata Martino, and Barreto was arguably one of Martino’s most important members of his squad.

Martino receives the plaudits for Paraguay’s record-setting run to the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup, the nation’s best-ever finish in the tournament. He also took the Guaraní to the 2011 Copa América final. While they were two fantastic results, Ruiz also deserves some credit for helping build the team.

The 2010 group contained an underachieving Italy and minnows New Zealand. In 2006, Paraguay had to battle Sweden and England. Also, with only three games in the opening round, the margin for error is thin. Oftentimes, national team managers receive more strict critiques due to the smaller sample size. It can take years until the country bears the fruits of his labour.

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Ruiz’s time with Paraguay will garner mixed reviews, but there is no doubting that he was a highly praised and respected coach across Latin America, and not just as the main man.

When Cardozo ended his distinguished playing career and moved to the touchline, he knew he lacked the experience to be a manager. When he was appointed by his former club Toluca as manager, one of his first acts was to hire his former national team coach. Ruiz had previously coached Toluca, along with the likes of León, Necaxa and Veracruz, where he gave Mexico international Miguel Layún his full debut in 2007.

When Cardozo moved to Chiapas and Puebla, Ruiz remained on his staff until his untimely death in early March. The ex-forward credited ‘El Maño’ for his wisdom and keen insight into the game. “We’ve known each other for a long time, and we truly lost a great one in football,” said Cardozo. “That is precisely why I invited him to work with me, so we could learn great things. He is a great guy who knew a lot of football.”

Ruiz had travelled across the Western Hemisphere, playing in his native Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Costa Rica. As a coach, Maño added Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador and Guatemala to his travels. In all, there were 10 different countries spanning 55 years. This breadth of knowledge is nearly unheard of in football.

Ruiz’s time with Paraguay, and separate stints in Mexico, is where he built his reputation, and perhaps his greatest achievement occurred with a newly formed club that turned the domestic league on its head.

Universidad San Martín were only formed in 2004, becoming the first club in Peru to be founded as a stock company. After purchasing the recently defunct Sport Coopsol’s place in the top flight, San Martín were playing in the Primera División right away.

Results were initially underwhelming, as expected. The team’s fortunes changed after qualifying for the Copa Sudamericana in 2006. Peru internationals such as Josepmir Ballón, John Galliquio and Leao Butrón were all members of the squad in its early years. A victory in the Apertura in 2007 led to a place in the prestigious Copa Libertadores the following year, and another league title was clinched shortly thereafter.

San Martín were beginning to compete with the likes of Alianza Lima and Universitario for players, but due to their prestige and advanced academies, Los Albos knew there was a lot of work to be done until they could consistently topple the Peruvian giants.

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Known as ;El Profesor’, Ruiz was hired to teach the club how to win and to do so consistently. Despite not having the fandom of Universitario or Alianza, Ruiz’s team in 2010 captured the hearts of supporters across the country.

The Uruguayan handed a debut to a youngster named Christian Cueva, who was making waves at the youth level. The diminutive attacking midfielder became one of the club’s best-ever players and is now a key starter for the Peruvian national team, thanks in large part to Ruiz’s faith.

His attack-minded San Martín won the first stage of the league with 62 points and scored more goals (61) than any other team. Los Santos cruised through the second phase, crushing Alianza 4-0 and defeating Universitario 1-0 along the way to reach the final against León de Huánuco.

A hard-fought 1-1 draw in Huánuco set up a scintillating second leg at Lima’s Estadio Monumental. The crowd of more than 35,000 watched a football clinic that afternoon.

Despite their best efforts to shut down and intimidate Ruiz’s men, Huánuco could not contain San Martín’s attack for very long, as Pablo Vitti and Pedro Garcia scored within 10 minutes of one another in the first half, clinching a 2-1 win to claim a third title in four years.

This third championship was even sweeter considering San Martín had to play a league final, which was not the case in 2007 or 2008. They also did not win both the Apertura and Clausura in either year, whereas they were dominant from start to finish under Ruiz.

As the Monumental crowd applauded the San Martín squad off the pitch, the fans knew what Ruiz had accomplished was extraordinary. The 2010 campaign was the team’s last hurrah, as the club has yet to return to similar heights.

Ruiz may not be a household name in the football world, but one of the hardest-working figures in the game will live on thanks to his bravery and trailblazing path across the Western Hemisphere 

By Peter Galindo    @GalindoPW