A Tale of One City: Asunción

A Tale of One City: Asunción

SMALL LANDLOCKED COUNTRIES TEND NOT TO GET INVOLVED WITH INTERNATIONAL CONFLICT, and Paraguay is no different. During the Second World War, the league system continued virtually unaffected as Higinio Moríñigo’s government officially remained neutral, despite the relatively high number of German immigrants, until aid from Dwight Eisenhower prompted the South American nation to declare war on Nazi Germany in February 1945. The defining rivalry of the country’s football history, however, was born from a battle, and has come to define the landscape of the Paraguayan game.

In 1811, forces from the Argentine capital Buenos Aires – “porteños”, as natives of the magnificent metropolis are known – were defeated near the Cerro Mbae (Mbae Hill), which was renamed ‘Cerro Porteño’ in honour of the famous military victory. This was the name that a group of friends from the San Juan Capilla suburb of Asunción chose for their club just over a century later on October 25, 1912, to encapsulate the pride of the nation. They were savvy in their choice of colours too. In combining red and blue, representing the Colorados and the Liberales respectively, they attempted to unite the rival political parties that had wrestled for control of the nation. The national team even wore the same colours until 1920, when blue was swapped for white.

If they were anxious about gaining early support, they needn’t have worried. A mere eight months after forming, they won the 1913 national championship unbeaten, a feat they repeated last year. Of course this didn’t sit too well with their rivals; new kids on the block, garnering popularity and success in a flash. They didn’t waste time either, forming what would become the dominant rivalry in the country – the first five championships after their conception were shared alternately with Olimpia. Even their birth took place while Olimpia were celebrating their first ever title.

In 1914, they finished level on points with Olimpia, and needed three games to determine a winner after the first two deciders finished 2-2 and 1-1, before Olimpia triumphed 3-2. The year after that, a two legged playoff was arranged after the same clubs again finished level. Again, two matches were not enough to separate them, but in extra time Cerro exacted revenge by storming to victory with three goals, earning themselves the nickname “El Ciclón” – their birth had indeed been a whirlwind.

Olimpia, on the other hand, were established a decade before Cerro by a group of young Paraguayans along with Dutchman William Paats, who was said to have brought the first football into the country via Argentina. Football at the turn of the century was not initially intended to appeal to the masses in South America, but this soon changed, as Tim Vickery explains:

“Football started as an elite thing,” he told me. “This was very true in South America. Olimpia, with their classic name, are proof of this. The game went down the social scale very quickly, and Cerro are good examples. Of humble origins, from a working class area, and also with a conscious attempt to unite people in a time of political turmoil.”

Paats’ suggested name mirrored the lofty ideals that formed the most successful club in Paraguayan history. Named after the Greek city of Olympia where the world’s most ancient and prestigious athletic games were founded amid traditions of mythology and religion, Olimpia take great pride at being the forebearers of football in their country. They took part in the first recorded Paraguayan club match against Guaraní on November 25, 1903, as well as being founding members of the Paraguayan Football League in 1906. They were the first club to win three consecutive championships from 1927 to 1929, before embarking on a successful tour of Chile and Peru, during which they defeated the host countries’ national teams.

The inaugural Copa Libertadores took place in 1960, and Olimpia took part as the Paraguayan champions having won the previous five domestic league title in a row, but fell to Peñarol of Uruguay 2-1 on aggregate in the final, with Luis Cubilla scoring the decisive second leg equaliser six minutes from time in Asunción. This would not be the last time the team that would become known as Los Reyes de Copas, or Cubilla himself, made their mark on the competition, and on the conscience of South American football.

With a combined total of 69 national titles out of the 108 on offer, Olimpia and Cerro Porteño have completely dominated the history of Paraguayan domestic football. Rangers and Celtic may have won a higher percentage of domestic titles (99 from a possible 118), but where the Superclásico Paraguayo differs is the percentage of fans that follow them. Ralph Hannah is the founder of the only English language blog dedicated to the country’s football, paraguayfootball.wordpress.com, and he explains what makes the derby so special:

“Unlike England, football is very centralized here,” he said. “Most teams are from Asunción – and these two clubs probably have 90-95% of the country’s fans, meaning each clásico is a national event. When the league is no longer at stake, a win is almost equivalent to winning a trophy.”

South American football often throws up concentrated cauldrons of football where capital cities provide a large proportion of top-flight teams. Local matches are frequent, but the cliché is that a rivalry carved along the working class-elite divide usually develops as the dominant derby. Olimpia’s relationship with Cerro is much more complex than that. On the surface, both sides claim superiority, but in different ways. El Decano (a reference to being the oldest club) can legitimately point to their bulkier trophy cabinet with nine more Paraguayan league titles, but El Club del Pueblo are the only team in Paraguay with an unbeaten record against all other domestic rivals. Cerro Porteño could claim greater popular support that stems from their patriotic name and colours, but Olimpia can show their history as the original club and founding member of the national league.

Olimpia fan Tim Venables has been watching the domestic game for more than thirty years, and he describes the changing popular image of the clubs’ fans. “Traditionally Cerro is the team of the people and Olimpia of the elite,” he said, “but the elite of the dictatorship, and since 1989 and the arrival of the nouveau riche it is more acceptable for those at the top to support Cerro.”

For 35 years, the country had been ruled under a permanent state of siege by Alfredo Stroessner, a staunch anti-communist whose reign of terror was the longest unbroken rule by one person in the history of South America. His father had emigrated from the picturesque Bavarian town of Hof at the end of the nineteenth century, and married a wealthy girl of Criollo-Spanish descent, Heriberta Matiauda. Alfredo joined the Paraguayan Army in 1929 at the age of 16, where he swiftly rose up the ranks, serving in the Chaco War against Bolivia from 1932-1935. During the civil war which broke out in 1947, he played a key role in the destruction of a working class rebel barrio of Asunción, but he was single-minded and canny in improving his lot. By 1948 he had become the youngest general in South America wielding considerable influence in the military, until having supported successive coups, he staged his own in 1954.

The fact that their run of five domestic titles coincided with the first years of Stroessner’s dictatorship may have enhanced the image that Olimpia had a reputation as the team of the ruling classes. Stroessner was in fact a fan of Libertad, even though his daughter’s brother-in-law was Osvaldo Domínguez Dibb, Olimpia’s most revered president who oversaw all three of the Libertadores victories during two spells at the helm. Like many leaders, he knew how to manipulate sport to gain popularity. In 1962, his friendship with Generalísimo Franco lead to Barcelona visiting Paraguay for an exhibition match against Libertad – the Catalans had two Paraguayans in their team at the time, Cayetano Re and Eulogio Martínez.

His undoubted frustration at Olimpia’s success is mirrored in the dynamics of modern support. “I would say in a way Paraguay is split between Olimpia and anti-Olimpia,” Venables explains. “Libertad fans are basically anti-Olimpia fans – they get more worked up when Olimpia are playing than they do about their own club. Olimpia get their energy from aversion, they are always fighting the Paraguayan FA. I noticed last year when they had the [Libertadores] Cup run they have a knack of getting all the aversion against them and turning it into positive energy.”

Vickery believes that this siege mentality suits the inner character of Paraguayans. “The general reputation of Paraguayan football in the continent is one of being fearsome warriors – they’re a very sedate people, but football does bring out the warrior in them, and they can hang on grimly with a defence that is both calm and desperate. Olimpia in the Libertadores have this reputation for being able to grind out results – they reached the final last year and only lost on penalties despite huge financial problems.”

As in many countries, new money has changed the landscape somewhat. Olimpia have suffered from serious financial problems, and last year went nine months without paying their players. Libertad, on the other hand, recently won the Clausura tournament, and are backed financially by none other than Horacio Cartes – the country’s president, and owner of more than 20 companies, including Paraguay’s largest tobacco producer.

“Libertad are building up slowly,” Venables commented, “and will win an international tournament sooner rather than later. In this sense Olimpia are sort of always in trouble, in debt, don’t really use their youth system efficiently and get through a ridiculous amount of managers [12 in the last six years].” This emergence of a new serious challenger has only recently affected the derby in terms of domestic dominance, even if continental success is still synonymous with Los Reyes de Copas.

Olimpia have reached the semi final of the Libertadores 12 times, while only Boca Juniors and Peñarol have contested more finals. Cerro, despite participating in an astonishing 33 campaigns in the continent’s showpiece tournament, have never gone beyond the semi final. Although they also have the superior domestic honours record over Cerro, they have been through a rough period since the turn of the century. This record is central to the rivalry between the two, as Venables explains.

“Olimpia are the victims of their own success. They have the mystique of winners, not just here but in South America and they are seen as something of an enigma. Until this year no other Paraguayan team had reached a Libertadores final, but Olimpia had reached seven winning three. And yet at home they don’t have it easy – they have won one title in the last 27 [dating back to 2000]. When they wake up, they grow a pair and go all the way like last year [when they lost to Ronaldinho’s Atlético Mineiro on penalties in the final].”

As they were bravely falling at the last hurdle of the Libertadores, their great rivals were busy wrapping up an unbeaten domestic league title, but the prestige of the continental competition is the elephant that refuses to leave the room for El Ciclón.

“I think with Cerro it’s a mental thing,” said Hannah. “A lack of belief, or the fact that Olimpia have won [the Libertadores] three times plays on their mind too much in the crunch games.” The pressure of outstripping such a significant rival is intensified by the relative lack of competition, which is mirrored by the manic fervour that runs through the stands.

Manchester United and Liverpool fans goad each other over their respective records – United’s 20 league titles to Liverpool’s 18 is countered by the Merseysiders’ five European Cups to United’s three – but arguably the prestige of domestic and continental glory is more even in Europe. Sir Alex Ferguson’s frenzied hunting down of his great rivals on their “perch” defined the most glorious managerial reign Manchester United has ever seen more than the chase to match their European Cup record.

Hannah describes the ferocity and passion of fans as he recalls how his allegiance was virtually forced upon him during a visit to a Cerro Porteño away match. “We nearly got whipped with a belt by an enraged barra brava leader trying to get his recruits to jump higher and sing louder. I’m not sure if it should have put me off or not, but I have stuck to the azulgrana ever since.” Unfortunately, this passion can spill over into far more serious matters. For example, in December 2014, Franco Nieto, captain of provincial Argentine side Tiro Federal, died after having been attacked and stoned by opposition fans till he lay unconscious.

Although fan violence has blighted Argentinian and Brazilian football on a larger and more public scale, Paraguayan supporters are not immune to expressing their emotions with uncontrolled aggression. “I haven’t experienced anything personally,” Hannah continued, “but there is a lot of violence and match days can be dangerous. Even when the teams aren’t playing their “bravas” – organized supporters groups but essentially hooligan groups – pick a fight with each other, and there are often reports of an Olimpia fan being badly beaten or worse by a group of Cerro fans or vice versa. I think for most people it’s a healthy rivalry but of course there exists a marginal group of people who express their violence through the colours of their football club.”

“There is normally a death around a clásico once or twice a year,” adds Venables. “This is partly why I don’t go anymore, it’s just not worth the hassle.”

Even in the face of such antipathy towards each other, it has not been uncommon for players to represent both sides of the derby divide. Carlos Gamarra won three titles for Cerro Porteño before going on to play for a host of European sides including Benfica and Inter Milan, but returned to his homeland for a season with Olimpia. After a successful career that took in Brazil, China, Spain, Mexico, Argentina and Chile, Nelson Cuevas also played for both sides.

While Gamarra only left South America having already gained significant experience, former Newcastle United midfielder and Cerro Porteño youth product Diego Gavilán became the first Paraguayan to play in England when he moved at the tender age of 19. “Personally [signing for Olimpia] was more of a professional decision but it was still difficult,” he revealed to me. “The reaction of Cerro fans was more or less normal – it was perhaps a blow to see one of the more emblematic Cerro players (his father also played for Cerro in the 1970s) sign for Olimpia, but I always maintain my feelings and respect for the people of Cerro and Olimpia.”

With the small size of the top flight, and the structure of Apetura and Clausura leagues within a calendar year that is common in South America, inevitably crucial showdowns between the two occur more often than in other derbies. Roma midfielder Juan Manuel Iturbe was only a 17-year-old when he roasted national team legend Julio César Cáceres to score for Cerro in 2011, while the Salcedo brothers, Domingo and Santiago, both netted against Olimpia in the 2012 Clausura clash. Perhaps the most dramatic moment in recent years was Jonny Fabbro’s winning free kick that saw Cerro leapfrog Olimpia to the 2012 Apetura title in the last game.

Gavilán remembers being isolated from the intensity of the fixture as a teenager. “On [derby] match days I was calm and concentrated. Maybe the first derby was more tense and anxious. The importance of the game was very clear to me, because I am a Cerro fan, and I grew up with Cerro, so I feel the derby in a different way. I believe Olimpistas are more faithful to the shirt, but I like Cerro fans more because when they win it is like a carnival.”

Was he aware of the violence that marked the derby? “There are always clashes between the fans; before, during, and after games. I never took part in violent confrontations between fans. Right now they are trying to fight violence in football, especially between these two clubs with so many fans.”

On the pitch, the roll call of star names from both clubs is impressive: Cerro’s strike partnership of European Championship winner Dani Güiza and 16-year-old prodigy Sergio Díaz represents the opposite ends of the spectrum. The Spaniard brings genuine international experience after a nomadic career through Spain, Malaysia, Turkey and now South America, whereas Díaz, recently called up to the Paraguay under-20 squad, is evidence of a well-established academy. Current Argentina manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino won a title with Cerro before his compatriot Ossie Ardiles took the reigns in 2008 – even the legendary ‘Galloping Major’ Ferenc Puskás had a stint in charge in the mid-80s.

Paraguay’s record international goalscorer Roque Santa Cruz began his career at Olimpia, while his former Bayern Munich teammate, midfielder Julio Dos Santos, is currently second in Cerro Porteño’s all time top goalscorer’s list. The oldest player to appear in a World Cup finals match, Colombian keeper Faryd Mondragón, represented Olimpia, along with two titans of South American football, Ever Almeida and Luis Cubilla. Almeida is the Libertadores appearances record holder with 113 matches, and has managed Paraguay and Guatemala as well as Olimpia themselves. Cubilla, the man who scored against Olimpia in the 1960 Libertadores final, went on to manage the club on five occasions, finally bringing the holy grail home in 1979, and again in 1990 and 2002.

While Cerro have more momentum domestically in the battle to claim more titles, they still can’t quite shake off the looming presence of their cross-town rivals. What really drives the derby, more than the illustrious alumni, is the obsession with records. Venables sums up the antagonism:

“Cerro have as many if not more fans than Olimpia, a superior head to head record, a successful youth system and a respectable international record, and this is where the trouble starts. They have yet to make the grade, reaching six Libertadores semis, as opposed to Olimpia’s 12, and it is Olimpia’s shadow which has been their stumbling block.”

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint