Latin America

Cabanas set to dampen tragedy's echoes

Salvador Cabanas (L) signed with 12 de Octubre nearly two years after being shot in Mexico. PADDY HIGGS
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It’s not what you imagine of when you hear the phrase ‘shot heard around the world’. In fact, in Mexico City's Bar Bar nightclub on Jan. 25, 2010, the gunshot’s crack may not have even been heard far beyond the club’s bathroom. The echoes of the blast, however, continue to ruminate far and wide, from its initial waves in the Mexican capital to now, two years later, with the small Paraguayan city of Itauguá the would-be site of a remarkable return.

Salvador Cabanas scored 66 goals in 115 league matches for America after moving to the club in 2006. (Photo credit: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

For Salvador Cabañas, the gunshot should have cost him his life. The focal point in attack for Mexico’s Club America, the 29-year-old was expected to lead the Paraguayan national team into the 2010 World Cup. Instead, Cabañas’ career became an afterthought after J.J. Balderas - a drug dealer who had pulled a gun on Cabañas – shot him in the head from close range.

Emergency surgery in the wake of the attack saved Cabanas’ life, but an artifact of the assault remains. Doctors were unable to remove the bullet from Cabanas’ brain, fearful doing so would only exacerbate the already considerable damage.

For its part in the tragedy, Bar Bar quickly learned its fate. The club was soon shot down amid rumors its security staff helped smuggle Balderas from the scene in the moments after the shooting.

Cabanas was in for a much longer road. At what was supposed to be the prime of this playing career, the striker spent five weeks in intensive care before moving to a rehabilitation center on Mar. 1, 2010.

Before Cabañas walked into that bathroom, he had been one of the Americas' biggest talents - the brightest jewel his county's glittering crown of attacking talent, one that also featured Benfica’s Óscar Cardozo, Manchester City’s Roque Santa Cruz and Borussia Dortmund’s Nelson Haedo Valdez. Even amid those names there was no question: Cabañas has transcended them all for La Albirroja.

In a continent brimming with talent, Cabañas had been named South America's best player in 2007, one year before Juan Sebastián Verón claimed back-to-back honors. Three years later, reports were linking him with Premier League club Sunderland. Nine million pounds was said to be the evaluation, but the World Cup’s stage was still ahead. 2011 was going to be a big year for Cabañas.

He had originally made his name with Chilean outfit Audax Italiano, but it was in Mexico where Cabañas' career truly took off, first with Jaguares and then América. Over the course of seven-plus years, Cabañas scored over 100 league goals at a rate of better than one in two games. Three times he’d finished as a tournament’s top-scorer, and his duel with Chilean Humberto Suazo for the title of the Primera Divisíon’s best striker lit up the Mexican League.

All of which came before the shooting.

Despite his best intentions, Cabañas missed the 2010 World Cup. Though Paraguay impressed, particularly in their last match versus eventual world champions Spain, Cabañas’ absence was keenly felt. Coach Gerardo Martino was unable to replace the six goals Cabañas had provided in qualification, let alone the ones he’d played a part in creating.

Cabanas made an initial return to the pitch in February 2011, training with LIbertad in his native Paraguay. (Photo credit: Norberto Duarte/AFP/Getty Images)

Missing the World Cup also weighed heavily on Cabañas, the tournament fueling his desire to return to the game. In February 2011, Cabañas rejoined Paraguayan league power Libertad to begin training for an unlikely return.

To be certain, it was a different Cabañas that returned to the game, though some things couldn’t be taken away. A revered figure in the dressing room for the national team, Cabañas served as an team adviser at the 2011 Copa America, with Paraguay determinedly battering their way into the final.

By then, it was also clear Cabañas had lost none of the determination that had pushed him to his previous heights. Only a year-and-a-half out from the shooting that nearly cost him his life, a full return to the field began to come into focus.

Cabañas initial comeback came in a short, testimonial cameo in August 2011, where he played a handful of minutes for both America and Paraguay. While merely making an appearance was an achievement worthy of pause, Cabañas made it clear it was simply another step to a full playing return.

“(Football) is what I love most,” he told television show Las Noticias por Adela. “It's what I want to do, it's my job. Returning to the pitch in good shape and being in great games.”

On January 20, 2012, Cabañas took another notable step, signing for Segunda Divisíon Club 12 de Octubre, a homecoming to an Itauguá-based club, one with symbolism transcending a return to his original club. Just as Cabañas had to learn to walk and speak again in the early stages of his recuperation, he has to rebuild his football career from its basics.

That point not lost on Cabañas, now 31, upon his unveiling at the club.

<p"Playing football is what I most want,” Cabañas said, upon being unveiled by the club. “I'm very excited and the truth is that I had very little sleep last night because I was very happy.”

“(The club is) pretty much how I remember the old days, when I started very young man at 15 … Soon we'll be back on the pitch."

Doctors have described Cabañas' survival and return to health as miraculous. There might well be some element of truth in that, but it would be a disservice to Cabañas to imply his return to soccer is entirely a product of fortune.

It’s been talent and determination that has helped Cabañas forge a decorated career. It will be the latter that delivers him back to competitive football, and with the former Paraguay talisman having come this far, only a foolish man would predict he’ll fall short.

From the aisles of the English Premier League to the rabid terraces of Argentina, football and a sound dose of itchy feet have taken Paddy Higgs just about everywhere. Australia-based but with his wee hours devoted to watching the world game wherever it is played, he contributes to a number of websites and magazines. Follow him at @Paddy_Higgs.

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