Back in 1995, then-Argentina coach Daniel Passarella had a message for the wife of Ramon Diaz, who at the age of 35 was winding down his goalscoring career in the Japanese league. “Tell Ramon that I recommended him for the coach’s job at River Plate,” said the Millonarios legend.
Though initially reluctant to end one career and start another, the message’s recipient eventually came round to the idea that his days as a lethal striker were over and that his future lay in the dugout. Today, exactly 20 years and nine club trophies later, the man they call El Pelado is within touching distance of his first major title as an international coach, having steered Paraguay to the semi-finals of the Copa America 2015, where La Albirroja will face his native Argentina on Tuesday.
“I’ve got experience now and I’m relaxed,” Diaz told FIFA.com last December, shortly after taking on the Paraguay job. “This is one of the happiest moments of my life, not just for me but my whole family, and that’s reflected in the work you do.”
The Paraguayans seem to have made a wise choice. Last in the CONMEBOL qualifying group for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, Los Guaraníes have been daring to dream again since Diaz’s appointment.
“If you don’t earn credit for playing Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay and avoiding defeat against all three of them, then you’re never going to get it," said Diaz, rightly proud of those three draws and the defeat of Jamaica, results that have silenced the criticism levelled at him before the Copa America by the likes of former goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert. "These players have shown people what they can do."
The players have certainly been grateful for Diaz’s arrival. Following Gerardo Martino’s successful tenure, which included a run to the final of the Copa America 2011, Paraguay lost their way, with Francisco Arce, Gerardo Pelusso and caretaker Victor Genes all coming and going in relatively quick succession.
“We’re doing a really good job - this is the best we’ve felt in the last four years,” said forward Nelson Haedo Valdez, who was on the score-sheet in the 2-2 with Argentina, one of the three matches at Chile 2015 in which La Albirroja have come from behind to secure a draw.
Goalkeeper Justo Villar, another mainstay of the Paraguay squad, added: “Ramon and his people know what they’re doing in these situations, and with their experience they’re helping us to raise our game. He came in and let people know what they had to do. He drummed it into our heads that we were good players and that we had what it took. The boys have responded well and it’s made us strong as a group and given us back some of the character we’d lost.”
Diaz can take a lot of satisfaction from leading Paraguay to the semi-finals of a competition they have won only twice before, in 1953 and 1979, a run that has bolstered their confidence ahead of the qualifiers for Russia 2018.
The most successful coach in River Plate’s history with eight titles, among them the Copa Libertadores, Diaz nevertheless enjoyed luckless spells with America in Mexico and Oxford United in England and continues to divide opinion in Argentina. While his admirers point to his shrewdness, desire to win and ability to spot talent, his detractors question his tactical ability and argue that luck has played too large a role in his triumphs to date.
When Alejandro Sabella vacated the Albiceleste hot-seat following defeat to Germany in the Brazil 2014 Final, Diaz might have expected to be in the running to replace him, having just won an eighth league title with Los Millonarios. As it turned out, though, he was not even considered for the post.
“Martino is a great coach but we would have liked them to have at least listened to us,” rued Diaz at the time, before adding, not without irony: “We’ll just have to go and win something else and try our luck the next time.”
It is Martino’s Argentina that now blocks his side’s path to Chile 2015 final. When the two sides met in their opening group match, Paraguay lined up with three defensive midfielders only to trail 2-0 at half-time. Diaz promptly switched things around, with his side storming back to secure a point. Making use of different systems in every game since then, Diaz has, with the help of his son and assistant coach Emiliano, made Paraguay more of a threat at set-pieces, a traditional strong point of theirs.
Twenty years on from making his coaching debut, Diaz is determined to push on and claim a very special trophy, an achievement that would go a long way to earning him widespread acclaim.