Roque Santa Cruz: 'Four or five clubs were interested in me, but it was Mark Hughes who made the difference'
Roque Santa Cruz, the Paraguayan who came from Bayern Munich, is the surprise success story of the opening few weeks of the new season. He tells Nick Harris why he chose to come to Blackburn, how he has overcome family tragedy and why the Germans always seem to do better than the English at international level
Saturday 01 September 2007
Take a glance the CV of Roque Santa Cruz, the golden boy of Paraguayan football and Blackburn's new No 9, and he is apparently a man who has it all, on and off the pitch. One of four sons, he grew up in a close-knit family in a hillside town outside Asuncion, made his debut for his local club, Olimpia, at 16, and by 18, in 1999, had fired his team to back-to-back titles and bagged himself his nation's Footballer of the Year award.
Inevitably, Europe's giants came calling for this athletic 6ft 2in striker – pop-star handsome with technical abilities every bit as easy on the eye – and he signed for Bayern Munich later that year. Between 2000 and 2005, Bayern won four Bundesliga titles, five domestic cups and, with Santa Cruz in their number, the Champions League of 2001.
Lest that were not enough, he was a cult hero with the Bayern faithful and popular throughout Germany. In 2004, he even sang on a pop record, "Ich, Roque" – a pun on the phrase "I rock" – with an upcoming band, Sportfreunde Stiller. It made the top 40 in Germany and Austria.
Roque went on to marry his beautiful wife, Giselle, and they have two young kids, Tobias and Fiorella. At last year's World Cup, where he featured in England's group for Paraguay – he is their all-time second highest goalscorer, with 16 international goals – the magazine Kicker and the newspaper Die Welt both voted him the sexiest footballer in the tournament. Another paper, Bild, ranked Giselle among the "most charming WAGs" of the event.
And still he is as grounded, charming and approachable as the boy next door.
Yet this fairy tale has a flipside, at times painful, at times tragic, at times both. And it is that flipside that ultimately allowed Blackburn to snap up Santa Cruz this summer for the relative pittance of £3.5m. The way things are going, he could prove the bargain of the season.
Until now, Santa Cruz has limited his explanation for why he left Bayern to saying he was not getting enough games. Yesterday he revealed that he had been desperate to leave for two years, and, now that he has finally done so, he believes both he and Blackburn are going places.
To understand why, we need to rewind to 2005, Santa Cruz's annus horribilis. In his first three seasons with Bayern, up to summer 2002, he was a regular starter, contributing more than his five league goals each season indicated. He was a Champions League regular too, playing more than 40 ties over the years, and if he only made the bench for the 2001 final win over Valencia, he had earned his place on it.
Then came an ankle injury and a knee injury, which limited his pitch time in 2002-03. He did reasonably well the following season (another five goals), but there were also another two knee operations. The 2004-05 season was all but a wipeout, and in January of that campaign, the then 24-year-old got a call from home telling him there had been a car crash. Three people had been killed. His brother Oscar, who was just a year younger than him, was among the dead.
"It's beyond comparison to anything," he said yesterday, the only time the smile leaves his face. "If you get injured, even it takes eight months, you recover. You lose a brother, it hurts so deep that it never recovers. It was also painful to see how much losing him hurt my mother, so bad. We're a close family. It takes time to recover, and even when it's better, it's not the same. I guess that was also one reason later why I wasn't playing so well."
By later, he means after the summer of 2005, which was when his injuries had left him down the Bayern pecking order, and his then manager, Felix Magath, appeared to be losing faith in him, and vice versa. Santa Cruz wanted out. And Hertha Berlin wanted to buy him. But then Magath changed his mind and would not let him go. "I came back from injury and I scored three goals in a row and that made the club say, 'Stay here'. And because I still had several years on my contract, I couldn't get out."
As it transpired, 2005-06 was also curtailed by injury, this time tendinitis, which at one stage seemed likely to keep him out of the World Cup. He made it, and played in Paraguay's 1-0 defeat to England, but club life was not the same again.
Bayern, and his knee troubles, and to some extent Oscar's death, had become synonymous. "When you're away from home because of football ," he begins to explain, before pausing. He left home as a teenager. His mother, Celina, always agonised about it. He missed his brothers.
"It's not the fault of football to be away from them, but it does cost you that time away from your family. And that can never be cured."
A clean break from Bayern had been needed since 2005. A healthy but so-so 2006-07 season – when even some Bayern fans started to wonder just what was the matter with their golden boy – clarified that in his mind. And when Bayern made it clear he would get limited chances this season, he was glad to go, finally.
"The decision was right, absolutely," he says. "They have two strikers [Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose] who will play every game. I had four or five clubs who were interested in me. I talked to some people, managers, and Mark Hughes made the difference."
Owen Hargreaves, Santa Cruz's long-time team-mate and good friend at Bayern, who taught him English, also advised that the Premier League was the place to be. The pair now live 10 minutes away from each other in Manchester. But Hughes' vision really swung it.
"He told me his ideas. It was a simple decision after that," Santa Cruz says. "He said I would get the opportunity to play. And to learn. He said this team is competitive, but that I will only help to make it more competitive. I had a good feeling. I feel fit and strong. I feel like I can do everything now."
Santa Cruz will not divulge which other clubs he spurned to join Rovers. He knows Manchester City, who visit Blackburn tomorrow, were interested in signing him, but as he never got as far as talking to them, they were not among the rejected.
Any of his unsuccessful suitors watching his start at Ewood Park would have grounds for feeling bad at missing out. In his first appearance on the season's opening day he scored with his third touch to equalise at Middlesbrough in a game Blackburn won 2-1. On 16 August, he scored the only goal in the Uefa Cup second qualifying round, first leg, at MyPa of Finland in a 1-0 win. The left-footed goal into the corner of the net came from a trademark run behind defenders, on to a ball from Jason Roberts. He scored again at Everton in the 1-1 draw last weekend.
Three goals, two in the league, already make Santa Cruz the most successful Paraguayan in English football history. (The only other compatriot to try his luck on these shores to date was Diego Gavilan, who played a handful of Premiership games in an ill-fated two-year stay at Newcastle from January 2000).
Hughes, undeterred by the marked lack of success of many South American imports, signed Santa Cruz, he says, for his aerial prowess, his technique, his pace, and his ability to work off defenders' shoulders. "All in all, he's a very good package," Hughes says.
"To score in my first game, within a few minutes, is indescribable," the man himself says. "The longer you take to get your first goal, the more the pressure. I skipped that pressure. I don't feel like I've only been here two or three weeks but ages. I feel comfortable, and that is also because of the spirit in the dressing room. They're nice guys." Robbie Savage has evidently yet to start his pranks.
Santa Cruz is wary about setting himself targets. Hughes has suggested that both he and Benni McCarthy are capable of ending the campaign with 20 goals each. "I've never thought about that," Santa Cruz says. "I don't want to say a number, but from what I've already seen of the Premier League, 15 goals would be a good season for anyone."
Still to come is a first goal at Ewood Park. "I will score against Manchester City, I hope," he says. He failed to score the last time he face a side managed by Sven Goran Eriksson, on 10 June last year at the World Cup in Frankfurt. Paraguay lost 1-0, courtesy of an own goal by Carlos Gamarra, their captain.
What does Santa Cruz think of Eriksson? "I've never had him as a trainer so I can't talk from personal experience, but his reputation at all his clubs speaks for itself."
And what about Eriksson's England? Why does Santa Cruz, a first-hand witness, feel that England faltered while a less individually gifted side like Germany go so much better? "The German national team play well even when they don't have their best players," he says. "It doesn't matter who's there, they're always going to do it. I really can't explain. Maybe it's cultural. The Germans work for the collective good. England had better individual players, but didn't work collectively."
How does he see the difference between German and English club football? "It's quite similar," he says. "Except the speed. Here is much faster, but I enjoy that. I feel comfortable when the game is like that, spaces opening to move behind defenders."
Tellingly, he says his only target this season "is to be healthy the whole season and see what happens. You always have something to prove, to others and to yourself. I want to show myself I'd been at Bayern too long. For now I'm enjoying every moment, every second."
Singing with Santa Fellow Footballing Falsettos
* ALEXI LALAS
The American was a member of punk group Gypsies, who released two albums and opened shows for Hootie & the Blowfish on their 1998 European tour. Also released a solo album, entitled Ginger
* PAUL GASCOIGNE
World Cup golden boy covered "Fog on the Tyne" with Lindisfarne, the song reaching the dizzy heights of No 2
* KEVIN KEEGAN
His 1979 effort "Head Over Heels In Love" peaked at No 33 in the charts.
* JOHN BARNESRemembered as much for "Anfield Rap" as anything he did on the field.
* CHRISTIAN PANDER
Defender who scored on his Germany debut against England last month, also known by his rap alter ego "Funky Pee"
* CARLOS TEVEZFrontman of Piola Vago, who play a form of Argentinian shantytown/urban music
* GLENN HODDLE and CHRIS WADDLE
Tottenham and England midfield duo got together to record the dismal pop effort "Diamond Lights", recently voted the 33rd-worst song of all time
* DAVID GINOLA
Former Spurs midfielder gave a memorable rendition of Sacha Distel's "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" on the TV show Stars in Their Eyes
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