Roque Santa Cruz
Born: 16 August 1981 in Asuncion, Paraguay
Height: 1 91m
Clubs: 1988-1999: Olimpia Asuncion. 1999-2007: Bayern Munich. Since July 2007: Blackburn Rovers.
Honours: 1998: Paraguayan league champion. 1999: Paraguayan league champion, Paraguayan player of the year. 2000: German league champion, German cup winner. 2001: UEFA Champions League winner, Toyota Cup winner, German league champion. 2002: played in the FIFA World Cup™ in Korea/Japan. 2003: German league champion. 2005: German league champion, German cup winner. 2006: played in the FIFA World Cup™ in Germany, German league champion, German cup winner, 57 caps for Paraguay, 18 goals.
Miscellaneous: Married to Giselle, the sister of his former Paraguay and Olimpia team-mate Ricardo Tavarelli. They have one son, Tobias (4), and one daughter, Fiorella (2).
“Babygol” back to his best
Sometimes it can take years for outstanding potential to be translated into outstanding performance. For Roque Santa Cruz, that potential was obvious from an early age but it is only in the last year, at the age of 26, that he has finally shown that he deserves to be considered one of the leading strikers in the world.
If the English Premier League is the strongest in the world, and recent results in the Champions League indicate that it is, then as the fourth-highest scorer in that competitive arena Roque Santa Cruz can rightly be regarded as world class. But it has taken the best part of a decade for the striker to live up to his early billing.
In terms of footballing talent, Santa Cruz was a child prodigy. He was only nine years old when Olimpia, that famous old club in Asuncion, the capital city of Paraguay, spotted him and asked him to join their youth programme. To his classmates, Santa Cruz became an immediate hero, given special permission to arrive late for his lessons after training with Olimpia.
Success at senior level arrived astonishingly quickly. Santa Cruz dominated the scoring charts in the youth division and by the age of 15, after a rapid growth spurt had seen him spiral towards the 1.90m mark, the club’s coach Luis Cubilla invited him to train with the first-team squad. Santa Cruz was still 16 when he made his senior debut in 1998, Cubilla throwing him into the fray against Cerro Porteno in the Paraguayan Super Clasico.
In such situations, with paparazzi waiting outside the school gates, some young players would have let fame go to his head. Not Santa Cruz – armed with a 100-dollar pay packet he took his whole class out for a coke and a sandwich.
On the football pitch, he never looked back and his arrival in the senior side coincided with a wonderful run for Olimpia and two league championship titles in 1998 and 1999. Santa Cruz was still 18 when the second title arrived and his 14 goals for his club marked him out as a major talent. By that time, he was already an international — that honour arrived when he was 17 and his three goals in the Copa America, combined with his impact for Olimpia, were enough to secure him Paraguay’s footballer of the year award in 1999 as well as the nickname “Babygol” as the heir apparent to Gabriel “Batigol” Batistuta. Such youthful promise inevitably attracted attention from Europe and it was one of the giants of football, Bayern Munich, who swooped.
For the next eight years, the medals arrived with satisfying regularity: four German Bundesliga titles, five domestic cups and even the Champions League itself in 2001. He also became something of a cult favourite of the Bayern fans and contributed to a pop song — “Ich, Roque” (“I Rock”) – that was a hit in Germany.
Except that for Santa Cruz, life was something of a frustration. He found himself struggling to be viewed as a first-choice striker and usually had to settle for substitutes roles behind the likes of Giovane Elber, Carsten Jancker, Roy Makaay and Claudio Pizarro. His youth was an undoubted hindrance – plus he arrived speaking only Spanish, without friends and family and Bayern were packed with dominant personalities such as Stefan Effenberg and Lothar Matthaus. He was also cursed with bad luck- injuries arrived just as he seemed to have forced his way into the first XI. He was also devastated by the death of his brother Oscar in a car crash three years ago.
A NEW BEGINNING
The telephone call that turned Santa Cruz’s career around arrived in the summer of 2007. Although Munich had been home for almost eight years, the striker had decided he needed to move on. Alerted to his availability, a number of clubs made approaches but it was Blackburn Rovers manager Mark Hughes who impressed Santa Cruz most. Hughes had also played in the Bundesliga and he told the striker he understood that the hierarchical system that operated at some German clubs could hold back players such as himself.
Blackburn would not be like that, said Hughes: Santa Cruz would be given every chance to prove himself and the style would suit him. Santa Cruz liked what he heard and agreed immediately. “This is a new beginning and I want to play and show everyone the real me,” he said on arrival. “I had stopped doing that at Bayern.”
He scored his first goal in the Premier League with only his third touch and 22 more followed, his best-ever return in a single season, and he also rediscovered his touch at international level with a hat trick against Colombia at the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela. That propelled him into second place in the list of Paraguay’s all-time scorers and he currently stands on 18 goals in 57 internationals. Having now cracked it on the club stage, perhaps Santa Cruz’s next challenge is at international level — only Jose Cardozo’s 25 goals stand above him and that total should be very much in his grasp given that he has so many more years ahead of him.
Santa Cruz has a wealth of experience to lean on too, despite his relatively tender years. He helped his country to both the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cup™ finals, although it has to be said that his greatest impact in Germany in 2006 was being voted sexiest footballer in the tournament by both Kicker and Die Welt.
“THE REAL ME”
Santa Cruz is one of those people who appears to have it all: fantastic talent, film-star looks and a very likeable personality. Even back in his schooldays in Asuncion he was determined not to be changed by his fame and it appears that is still very much his attitude.
Blackburn chairman John Williams told FIFA magazine: “Roque is an absolutely first-class fellow and he is superb with the fans. Ever since he arrived at the club he has been terrific as a player and as a person. He goes out of his way to sign autographs and is a really nice, humble and polite young man who is very well-liked by his team-mates.”
His success in England has already seen him linked with a move to Arsenal, or to one of the Italian giants, but whatever happens at least Roque Santa Cruz can say: “This is now the real me”.