Will Cabanas shooting motivate Paraguay?

Salvador Cabanas was supposed to lead his native Paraguay into the 2010 World Cup as one of the favorites to advance out of group play.

Featuring for Club America in Mexico, Cabanas was in the midst of a standout season that earned him the reputation as one of the most influential forwards in South America. A strong showing in the World Cup might have helped him make the seemingly inevitable move to Europe.

That was before a gunman shot him in the head in the bathroom of a Mexican bar in January.

Nearly five months later, the cause of the shooting remains a mystery. Whether it was a robbery gone bad or a fight turned ugly, nothing changes the fact that Cabanas was lying in a pool of his own blood, his life hanging by a thread, and his nation’s World Cup hopes flickering along with his pulse.

Cabanas survived the attack after emergency brain surgery, but the incident shook Paraguayan soccer to its core. After finishing tied for second place in South American qualifying (ahead of Argentina and just one point behind Brazil), with victories against Brazil and Argentina, Paraguay was a favorite to advance out of a World Cup group that includes Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand. Now, the near death of an iconic figure like Cabanas threatens to undo Paraguay’s plans.

While he wasn’t necessarily the best player on the Paraguayan team, there is little doubting his standing as a talismanic leader on a squad loaded with attacking talent. Owner of Paraguay’s No. 10 shirt, Cabanas made his career in the Mexican League, starring for Jaguares before joining popular Club America, where his game really took off. He won South American player of the year honors in 2007 and was Paraguay’s leading scorer in the most recent World Cup qualifying cycle with six goals.

When Paraguay was drawn into its World Cup group in December, the belief was the team could reach the second round and potentially reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in the nation’s history, but the shooting changed expectations and focused attention away from the team and toward Cabanas.

Then, when Cabanas emerged from his coma talking about wanting to play soccer again and potentially play in this summer’s World Cup, the mood in Paraguay changed from a sad one to a hopeful one.

The fantasy of Cabanas making a miraculous recovery got a boost when video surfaced in March showing Cabanas taking free kicks and playing basketball at his rehabilitation center in Argentina. But the reality of Cabanas’ situation became more clear as time went on. Despite making incredible progress in his recovery, Cabanas failed to make Paraguay’s 30-man provisional World Cup roster.

Paraguay has received some welcome good news in its quest to try and replace Cabanas when Argentine-born striker Lucas Barrios was cleared to play for Paraguay. Born to a Paraguayan mother and Argentine father, Barrios was a standout in the German Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund this past season and will challenge veterans Roque Santa Cruz and Oscar Cardozo for a starting role.

While Barrios isn’t likely to offer the charismatic leadership that Cabanas provided, he and teammates Santa Cruz, Cardozo and Nelson Valdez still give Paraguay a potent attack that is now not only playing for its country, but also for the player who won’t be on the field next month in South Africa.

As for Cabanas, he was recently released from his rehabilitation clinic (on May 23). Although he still has a bullet fragment lodged in his brain, and still has some vision problems caused by the shooting, Cabanas could eventually resume his playing career.

“We are not ruling this out,” said Lisandro Olmos, director of the Fleni Clinic in Buenos Aires. “He is progressing very well, but he has to be given time.”

Cabanas seems determined to make a full recovery and to get back to his goal-scoring ways.

“Yes, I still want to play,” said Cabanas in his first interview after the shooting. “I’m very happy to be alive and to almost be recovered, and very soon I will be on the field.”

While Cabanas won’t play in South Africa this summer, he is expected to attend the tournament if he is physically capable of traveling. Paraguayan head coach Gerardo Martino has already extended the invitation.

“His doctors must determine if he can travel with us, but if it were up to me, he would already be with the team,” said Martino.

Though he won’t be on the field in South Africa, the fact that Cabanas is still alive and so determined to recover could serve as the type of motivating factor that could Paraguay toward World Cup success, thus turning what started out as a nightmare into an improbable dream.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com who will be covering U.S. Soccer and MLS.