Defensores del Chaco – enduring memories
A small group of around twenty very dignified old men are watching matches from behind the goal at the stadium’s east end. They do not shout, and when they are happy, thy keep it to themselves. They are the “defensores del Chaco” (defenders of Chaco), brave veterans of Paraguay’s defence of the Chaco Boreal region in a bloody war against Bolivia between 1932 and 1935. Indeed, it was from the stadium itself that the soldiers set out for the battlefront, a hostile and arid wasteland where they would be tormented by dust and thirst. Several thousand never returned. In homage to the Paraguayan soldiers’ outstanding bravery, the country’s biggest stadium was named after them.
The name and history of Paraguayan football’s national stadium par excellence lend in a mythical air. Every time a Paraguayan footballer treads the majestic surface of the Defensores del Chaco stadium, he is mindful that it has a history that must be respected, a tradition built on hard work and sporting triumphs.
For almost a century now, one thing has set the Defensores apart from other venues: it is the property of the Paraguayan football association, formerly known as the Paraguayan league. The fact that the stadium, which was built by the league out of absolutely nothing, is not owned by the state, the local government, a club or an individual, like the Azteca stadium in Mexico, is something virtually unheard of in the rest of the world.
To appreciate the stadium’s significance, it is necessary to understand the situation in Paraguay at the time it was built. Little more than forty years previously, an unequal struggle pitting Paraguay against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in the War of the Triple Alliance had come to an end. The country’s defeat and virtual extermination threatened its very existence and consigned it to absolute poverty for decades.
However, the determination of one man was to bring to fruition an attractive 40,000-capacity venue in the Sajonia district of the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, a quiet riverside suburb with attractive low-built houses.
Enrique Pinho, who was president of the Paraguayan league from 1913 to 1923, came up with the idea of building a venue for football, noting that “it was the people’s favourite sport.”