Paraguay's Santa Cruz growing in sharpness at Copa America
Paraguay's Roque Santa Cruz has been growing in sharpness at Copa America
It may be the last major tournament for Santa Cruz, 29, in a Paraguayan uniform
With one more goal, he will stand alone as Paraguay's all-time leading marksman
A few seconds after the final whistle had sounded in Cordoba, Argentina, on Saturday came the announcement that the official man of the match was Roque Santa Cruz of Paraguay.
Brazil had just poured water in his Champagne with an 89th-minute equalizer, substitute Fred guiding in a neat shot on the turn to make 2-2 the final score. But even so it was a special day for Santa Cruz. The beanpole Paraguay striker had given a real headache to the Brazilian back line. His composed turn and lay off had set up his team's second goal for Nelson Haedo Valdez. And shortly after halftime he had scored the first, latching on to a low cross from the left from Marcelo Estigarribia to guide a cool shot past Julio Cesar.
It was his 25th goal for his country -- taking him level with his former strike partner Jose Saturnino Cardozo as Paraguay's alltime top marksman.
This, of course, is a great achievement. But it is impossible not to look at the career of Santa Cruz and come to the conclusion that he could have achieved so much more.
I well remember his sudden appearance in the second half of 1998. Just past his 17th birthday he sent shivers round South America with a hat trick for Olimpia of Paraguay against Velez Sarsfield of Argentina, with the great Jose Chilavert in goal, in the now defunct Copa Mercosur. All three were headers.
I was anxious to have a look at the new teenage sensation, and I first saw him when he played against Palmeiras of Brazil in a later round of the Mercosur. Right at the start of the game he pushed the ball past a Brazilian defender and burst past him with astonishing ease, with a fluidity of movement of the truly gifted. Clearly there was much more to this player than just a penalty-area target man. He looked the complete package, and he was so young that he was nicknamed "Babygoal."
It was such a shame that Santa Cruz had not been born a year earlier. Paraguay had given a good account of themselves in the 1998 World Cup, pushing hosts and eventual champions France all the way before going out to an extra-time goal in their second-round match. But it was a dogged, backs-to-the-wall performance. Paraguay carried no real attacking threat. It had been their big weakness, and now, just a few months later, Santa Cruz had appeared from nowhere to be the long-term solution.
He did not have to wait long for a chance to show what he could do for the national team. A year after the World Cup, Paraguay hosted the Copa America for the first time. It was the biggest tournament ever staged in the country, and the 17-year-old had to carry the home attack. Jose Cardozo was injured on the eve of the competition, so it was up to Santa Cruz to deliver the goods.
He accepted the responsibility like a veteran -- I well recall one screaming goal against Japan, struck like a dream from long range. Paraguay fell in the quarterfinals, beaten on penalties by Uruguay. Disappointment for the hosts, then, but at least they had unearthed a top-class forward for more than a decade to come.
Straight after the tournament he left Olimpia to join Bayern Munich. The Germans were convinced -- with every justification -- that they had acquired a future superstar of the global game, a candidate for the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
Twelve years later we know that it did not happen. And we also know why. That beanpole physique kept breaking down. All-round technical excellence on the ground and in the air, intelligence and a professional approach -- he had all this. But he did not have the body that could cope with a twice-weekly battering.
But if the career of Roque Santa Cruz has fallen well short of what it might have been, there is still plenty to celebrate. There have been good times and great goals. He has played three World Cups -- but it is difficult to imagine him playing a fourth.
By the time Brazil 2014 comes around he will be almost 33, and bearing in mind his horrifying list of injuries, he will surely be well past his best. If so, that makes the 2011 Copa America his final international tournament. I suspect that he has prepared with this in mind.
During Paraguay's warm-up friendlies he still looked off the pace -- the hangover from yet another injury-hot season in the Premier League. But as the games went by he was growing in sharpness, scoring with a fine header against Romania. And in Paraguay's Copa America opener against Ecuador he looked to be finding his best form -- an impression confirmed by that man of the match performance against Brazil.
And now comes Venezuela. Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino complains that his team is playing better than in last year's World Cup but has yet to win a game. I hope they can put that right against the Venezuelans, who, after all, have already booked their place in the quarterfinals. I would like to see Paraguay do the same, if only to enjoy, for one more game at least, the sight of Roque Santa Cruz representing his country in a major international tournament.
If this indeed is the end, he deserves to go out on a high -- scoring again to put himself in front of Cardozo and everyone else at the top of the list as Paraguay's alltime top marksman.