It is almost a decade since Roque Santa Cruz won the Champions League with Bayern Munich but when he walks out today to face Arsenal at the Emirates he is one of those in the Blackburn Rovers side who has no reason to be intimidated by the quality of the opposition. The man with the rock-star name – and the rock-star good looks – is back on the big stage after a season of injuries and frustration.
Santa Cruz, 29, is something of an enigma. A richly-talented striker, he never really got going at Manchester City, who he joined two years ago for £17.5m, and is back on loan at Blackburn. There is a lot more to this bloke than meets the eye. He is a Premier League footballer with a social conscience whose passion for effecting social change in his native Paraguay is quite extraordinary. More of that later.
When we meet at Rovers' training ground this week, Santa Cruz mentions more than once that he is still a City player, as if he is reminding himself. Signed by Mark Hughes, he started only seven league games for the club, scoring his first goals in the game against Sunderland which was to be Hughes' last in charge. Tendinitis affected him last season and eventually last month he finally accepted that he was not part of Roberto Mancini's plans.
That is why he is back at Blackburn, the club where he had two excellent seasons after arriving in 2007. Today is the first of eight crucial games for Rovers in their battle to survive in the Premier League, and although Santa Cruz's loan deal precludes him from playing against City on 25 April, he will be a key player. His most recent groin problem has healed during the international break and it would be an understatement to say that he is raring to go.
You might expect a man who has had to leave the richest club in the world for a place in the relegation battle – Blackburn are one of four clubs on 33 points, one point off the relegation zone – to be bitter but the annoyance at what he once described as a lack of chances at City seems to have abated. Does he regret following Hughes there?
"If I could change something and I had the power to do so, I wouldn't have got injured at City," Santa Cruz says. "I think the choices that we make in football take us through a period of learning. Maybe because I didn't play that much, then I am in the situation now where I am pain-free and that wouldn't have been the case if I had been playing all the time. It is hard to answer. I normally don't regret the choices and decisions. For now I am very happy to be here.
"City did everything to make me feel comfortable and to feel part of it. It is certainly one of those things in football. The manager needs to make his choice and you can't make all the players happy and even though I wasn't playing, I was still training and doing my best for the club.
"Then you come to a period where you cannot handle that any more. The unhappiness shows in your behaviour. The body language doesn't lie and I didn't want to get to a point where my mind wasn't right. So Blackburn came in at the right time for my football and to come back and just keep playing again. That is why I appreciate so much what Blackburn have given me and I can't wait to start scoring."
Being a City player in this day and age will make you a rich man. Over the next few years and decades, some of those players will squander Sheikh Mansour's money but Santa Cruz knows exactly where every penny of his salary goes. Since he left Paraguay for Germany as a raw teenager he has supported a programme of refurbishing, and in some cases building, schools in Paraguay.
It is a process that never ends and it has forced him to think about all the money he makes, no matter how much there is of it. When our discussion moves to that perpetual obsession for Premier League footballers – cars – Santa Cruz makes a striking observation that reveals his philosophy on life. "In terms of my conscience I just wouldn't feel right driving around Paraguay in a Ferrari when I see the lives people have there."
He says: "If you drive whatever car for £50,000, you will get a luxurious car. There is probably no need to have a £200,000 car. I really love cars but I wouldn't buy a car for £200,000. I don't like 'big' things. I wouldn't spend money on jewellery but I do let myself have a good car. It's around £50,000.
"You should live well, that is what we are working for. Everyone has this edge [limit] and mine is that I believe in not having more then you need. It is impossible not to see the need that there is in Paraguay. In Europe it is harder to see it because you don't have so many of these problems. But in Paraguay you would have to be blind not to see the need."
For the record, he drives a Nissan GTR which he regards as more than adequate. He is not boastful either. This interview was not given on the basis that we publicise his foundation; in fact it is me who brings the subject up. For the last 10 years or more he has sought very little publicity at all, funding most of it himself. Now he admits that he can see the end of his lucrative playing career in sight and he may need a few sponsors to help him continue the work.
Santa Cruz also points out that he is not the only footballer with a foundation in his name – he mentions Craig Bellamy, Shay Given, Kolo Touré at City and Jason Roberts at Blackburn as all doing something similar. Santa Cruz puts a lot into his. It is not just about the money – he speaks personally to the children too when he visits Paraguay – although he has to admit that is a major part.
He is unwilling to put a figure on exactly how many schools have been changed with his help but the process, as he explains it, is pretty simple. His mother, Celina Cantero, a former seamstress, runs the operation full-time. She speaks to her son once a month and tells him how much they need to get that month's work done. "They will tell me £20,000 to finish that bit," he says, "so I give them the £20,000, they finish it and then we try to decide which school we help next."
Santa Cruz said that were it not for football he would probably be a policeman in Asuncion, like his father. He and his three brothers was brought up Catholic in a house where the boys had "everything that we need but no more", Santa Cruz says. That was until he transformed their fortunes by turning professional for local club Olimpia at the age of 16 and signing for Bayern as a 17-year-old.
"Around my house and in the local area we had friends whose circumstances were worse than ours," he says. "If you go 15 miles outside of Asuncion then the situation is not the best. In Paraguay we have kids in the street which is very hard to accept because they are very, very young. It is very hard for me to be luxurious [sic] in Paraguay when you can see these things so I prefer to give up some luxury to help them out.
"Many kids turn to crime because of need and they think that is the only way to work. It is about telling them there is always another option. Paraguay is a rich country in that no one will die from hunger. We have fruit and vegetables growing everywhere. You could literally live in a parking lot and eat the mangos that fall out of the trees. But kids don't see a lot of choices to change their life. We basically tell them if they knock on the right doors, those doors will open."
It was Santa Cruz's older brother Oscar who helped to set up the foundation while he was completing his qualifications to be a lawyer. In 2003, Oscar was killed in a car crash. One of the few concessions to publicity for the family has been naming one of the new schools built by the foundation after Oscar.
"It is very rewarding to go back and see the school," Santa Cruz says. "All the kids know that he was involved in it and it is my brother's name. It is very nice to go back and see it. The kids understand that someone has supported the school so they take care of their things.
"I don't think there are many things more rewarding than helping kids. It is very nice to have recognition for what you are doing and winning the Champions League [in 2001] was a great feeling that will last forever. Helping people is a bit different.
"Even though you helped you can't really see a big change even though you have made a big effort. It is not something you can solve from one day to another. After you have finished you turn around and see there is more to do. But it makes me feel good to be part of a little bit of helping the country and the kids."
He has three children of his own, Tobias, aged seven, Fiorella, five, and six-month-old Benjamin, the two oldest of whom consider themselves natives of the upmarket Cheshire town in which they live rather than Paraguay. Santa Cruz says that when they are old enough he will show them the schools that his family have helped to establish. "I want them to see how good life has been for us because other people don't have the same things," he says. "We have a good family which is not the case for many kids."
In the meantime it is back to the day job. He was a player who Arsène Wenger once picked out for special attention, prompting rumours that the Arsenal manager might sign him. That never happened and it is now back at Ewood Park, and first at the Emirates today, under the management of Steve Kean that, perhaps unusually, this Paraguay international with 79 caps feels most at home.
"It is just a feeling with Blackburn," he says. "When I walk into Ewood Park and I see the fans and I can feel in the air the love from them I want to show it back with my football. I just feel so connected to what Blackburn is as a team and it is nice to feel so loved. All the people around the club treat me so well. That is something that is more than what other teams can give me."
My Other Life
Tennis. I love it. Although I only get to play on holiday really. In Paraguay we had one famous player, Victor Pecci [French Open finalist, 1979]. Am I Paraguay's No 1 tennis player now? Sadly not, I keep losing to my younger brother.
More footballers laying foundations for the future
Footballers using their fame to set up foundations for good is no new phenomenon – Bert Trautmann, the German prisoner of war and Manchester City goalkeeper, fronted one to foster better Anglo-German relations, for example. Here are a few of the current crop:
Bellamy founded his academy in 2008 after visiting Sierra Leone. He saw children living in intense poverty and was moved to set up The Craig Bellamy Foundation there to inspire positive social and personal development through sport. The foundation has already developed nationwide leagues and has 1,400 members between the ages of 10 and 14.
El Hadji Diouf
Another footballer with a bad reputation on the field, he set up The Dioufy Foundation to help children in his native Senegal and also in Bolton and Blackburn where he has played. He has organised dinners, charity matches and even had his friend and hip-hop star Akon perform at a fundraising concert.
Park Ji Sung
The Korean midfielder founded the JS Foundation to "engage in football diplomacy" developing the game in Vietnam. The Manchester United player aims to provide scholarships to young players across Asia. He has set up a charity match called the Asian Dream Cup featuring himself, Carlos Tevez, Patrice Evra and his compatriot Chung-yong Lee of Bolton. It will be played in June in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, because Park has developed a cult following in the country.
Already a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, the Nigerian set up the Kanu Heart Foundation in response to his own trouble with a heart defect as a child. Now playing for Portsmouth, he was part of Arsenal's 'Invincibles' squad in 2003-04. His philanthropic work has proved no less successful, and the foundation has arranged for over 1,000 children to travel abroad for live-saving surgery.
Another Unicef ambassador, former Ghana captain Steven Appiah created his clothing label, StepApp, in 2007, which is distributed in Europe, the United States and Africa. Formerly of Juventus and Turkey's Fenerbahce, the midfielder now plies his trade in Serie A with Cesena. All proceeds from StepApp go to providing health insurance and medical facilities in his home country.
The Chelsea striker created his foundation in 2007 in response to a friend's death in 2006 from leukaemia, with the aim of providing financial support to those suffering poor health and poverty across Africa. So far, it has managed to raise funds to build a hospital in Abidjan and its future projects including building schools across the Ivory Coast.