Roque Santa Cruz: 'I couldn't drive a Ferrari. It just wouldn't feel right'

Santa Cruz is not your average footballer: rather than fast cars he spends a large slice of his wages on improving children's lives in his native Paraguay, he tells Sam Wallace

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:



Craig Bellamy

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.



Nwankwo Kanu

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.



Stephen Appiah

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.



Didier Drogba

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.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering