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Winning for “El Mariscal”

There are several reason why I enjoyed Paraguay’s victory over Slovakia. First, there’s the obvious. As almost every Paraguayan team in history, this group understands football first as a physical game. It is no coincidence that Paraguay is one of the few teams in the world—and certainly in this continent—so clearly identified with the ancestral values of its indigenous people, the Guaranies. This is not “el equipo paraguayo”; this is “el equipo guarani.” The indomitable culture of the Guarani is as much a part of Paraguayan football culture as Maori tradition for New Zealand. This Paraguayan team lives up to its billing. The Italians had a terrible time with Paraguay’s midfield. By the third minute of that first group match, De Rossi had already been kicked twice, in classic Paraguayan fashion. The poor Slovaks didn’t stand a chance. It might be true that Spain’s midfield is a beauty of creative football. But, when it comes to strength and sheer physical dominance, it will be difficult to top Riveros, Caceres and Vera. If Paraguay advances to the quarterfinals (I don’t think they would have any problem dealing with Denmark in the round of 16), they might clash with the Spanish. That would be, I reckon, something to behold.

But there’s another reason why I’m rooting for the Guaranies: out of shame. Let me explain. This great Paraguayan team was even greater during their qualifying run. And that’s because they had a player they called “El Mariscal.” His name is Salvador Cabañas, and he used to be—and believe me: this is no exaggeration—the best forward still playing in the American continent. During the South American qualifiers, Cabañas was his country’s top-scorer, its captain and its inspiration. In Mexico, Cabañas was worshipped for his stamina and almost instinctive relationship with the goal. He made an indelible impression on every team he played for. By the beginning of this year, Cabañas was finally ready to move to Europe (he had signed for Sunderland, apparently) and was surely looking forward to leading a Paraguayan team that, as we’ve all seen, had the potential for remarkable accomplishments.

Then, in the night of January the twenty-fifth, the great “Mariscal” crossed paths with the worst of Mexico. After a stupid squabble over a girl—at 5 am, no less—Cabañas walked into the bathroom of the Bar-Bar, a nightspot he used to visit often, like many other football players in Mexico City. A man followed Cabañas. They traded drunken insults. Then came tragedy: The man, later to be known as “El JJ,” pulled some sort of weapon and shot the footballer in the head. Cabañas opened his eyes a few hours later and spoke to his wife. “Ipora,” he said in his native tongue. It means “I’m all right.” But, of course, he wasn’t. The bullet had lodged into the back of his head and, after hours of surgery, there simply was no way of getting it out. In the months since then, Cabañas has recovered miraculously: He was taken to Argentina to rehabilitate. He now kicks the ball and runs; plays ping-pong and is able to communicate in both Spanish and his beloved Guarani. His hair—the magnificent mane he used to tie into a ponytail—has started growing back. But he will never play football again, even if he says he will. His tragedy shook Mexican society. It still does: To our shame, Mr. “JJ” has never been caught. And Paraguay lost its leader and its most impressive scoring talent.

Imagine what the Guaranies we’ve seen in South Africa would have been like with Cabañas running, like the bull he was, in between the opposing defenders! They would have been absolute contenders for the cup. Believe me: I saw “El Mariscal” play.