Paraguay's Deportivo Capiata set for Copa Libertadores debut
A handful of debutants will take part in this year's expanded version of the Copa Libertadores -- including, of course, Chapecoense of Brazil. But there is only one newcomer in action in this week's opening phase: a young club with a young coach.
Paraguay's Deportivo Capiata were only formed in 2008 and have only been in the first division since 2013. But, in addition to their own progress, they owe their participation in this year's Libertadores to an additional factor: the Mexican clubs pulling out.
Invited to take part in the competition since 1998, Mexican teams withdrew this year because their domestic calendar is incompatible with the new, year-long Libertadores format. As a result, the tournament will lose some TV market. But any financial loss has been Capiata's gain.
Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia had already been handed extra slots. To replace the three Mexican sides, one new place apiece was awarded to the other six countries -- Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. In three groups of two, they meet each other this week -- first legs on Monday; return games on Friday -- with the three winners moving on to the next phase.
Paraguay's place, then, went to Deportivo Capiata, who are now coached by the 36-year-old former international midfielder Diego Gavilan. Capped over 40 times by Paraguay, Gavilan was briefly with Newcastle United from 2000-03, and spent the best years of his club career in Brazil. He has coached youth sides, lower division clubs and has been on the staff of first division sides. But this historic moment for the club is also the first time he has taken charge of a senior first division team.
His opponents this week do not lack experience. Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela have taken part in 20 previous versions of the Libertadores, over half of them in the current century. Last year they made it out of the group stage and came close to reaching the quarterfinals. And, with the second leg in front of their fans, Tachira will probably feel that they are the favourites.
But some small Paraguayan clubs have shown what they can do in recent versions of the Libertadores, little Nacional went all the way to the final in 2014. The following year Guarani knocked out Corinthians and Racing on the way to the semifinals.
These, though, were traditional clubs from Asuncion. What makes Capiata so interesting is that they come from outside the Paraguayan capital.
In the history of the Libertadores, almost every Paraguayan club that have taken part have come from Asuncion. There are two exceptions; Sportivo Luqueno come from Luque, a virtual suburb of the capital, where the main airport is located. They have taken part on three occasions. And Doce de Octubre, from Itaugua, have played twice. Itaugua is a small town some 20 miles outside the capital.
Capiata is a little closer, but it is bigger and -- in theory at least -- more able to support and sustain a successful football club.
So might Gavilan be leading the club on the first steps of what, in the long-term, might be an interesting Libertadores story? Perhaps. In the short-term, though, it would be understandable if all he can see is Deportivo Tachira.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.