Triumphant return for Cabanas the gladiator
© AFP

Not for the first time, Salvador Cabanas had the Estadio Azteca eating out of the palm of his hand. Returning to the field of play 18 months after the shooting that almost killed him, the Guaraní striker was back at the temple of Mexican football, appearing in a match between America and Paraguay, the two teams closest to his heart.

Carrying only a little more weight than when his career was cruelly interrupted, Cabanas looked the part too, looking for the ball at every opportunity and bringing joy to the hearts of the 30,000 fans who turned up to pay tribute to him and give thanks for his inspiring recovery.

The entertainment began with the hero of the day receiving a standing ovation as he walked out on to the pitch, at the centre of which was a large banner that read: “Great is the man who keeps on fighting.”  After taking receipt of a Paraguay shirt signed by his colleagues in the national team and various gifts bestowed on him by America, the club he was playing for when he was shot, it was on to the moment everyone had been waiting for.  

I was surprised to see him, and he remembers things so clearly, even going back three or four years.
Matias Vuoso on Cabanas

Sporting the captain’s armband and the blue and yellow of Las Águilas, Cabanas stood over the ball in the centre-circle and got the game underway. With his team-mates looking to get the ball to him at every opportunity, Chava was in the thick of the action, spreading the play with élan and every firing off a dangerous shot on goal. 

Ten minutes later he was making his way off the pitch, though the show did not end with his substitution. Embarking on an emotional lap of honour, he milked the rapturous applause of the crowd, just as he used to when terrorising defences, touching his chest and kissing the badge on his shirt as he went.

Making a quick detour to the dressing room, he then emerged once more in a Paraguay shirt, showing further touches of his class alongside his Albirroja team-mates before retiring from the field of play ten minutes later, this time for good.

A hero figure
Struggling to express his emotions at the end of a highly charged day, Cabanas had only this to say: “This has been a wonderful occasion for my family and I. I’d like to thank all Americanistas for all the love they have shown me through the good times and bad.”

His America and Paraguay team-mates had plenty to say afterwards, however, voicing their admiration for the man and their amazement at his recovery to FIFA.com. “I was surprised to see him, and he remembers things so clearly, even going back three or four years,” said his one-time America striking sidekick Matias Vuoso. “We started to talk about the things we’ve been through together and he mentioned stuff I’d forgotten about.”

No one was happier to see Chava looking so fit and healthy than Paulo da Silva, with whom he shared many highs and lows in the red and white of Paraguay: “We would have liked him to score a goal but the most important thing is that Salvador is happy. He’s achieved his objective of playing for the national team and America, where he had some wonderful times.”

Current America coach Carlos Reinoso, an Águilas idol, was no less effusive in his praise for Cabanas. “I remember when Salvador and I arrived in Mexico from the same Chilean club, Audax Italiano, and we’ve always respected, loved and admired each other,” he commented. “As I’ve always said, ‘Cabanas is my idol’, and have nothing but words of gratitude for him.”

The Paraguayan press also had the warmest of words for the recovering hero. La Nación called his reappearance “a miracle”, while ABC Color ran with the headline: “The Marshal is back”. However, the most hopeful message of the day came from Jose Guadalupe Cruz, the coach of Jaguares, the team that brought Cabanas to Mexico: “He showed that he’s fit enough to play this game and he’s got so much talent you can’t rule him out. If he wanted to make a comeback, Jaguares would be an option.”

It remains to be seen whether his miraculous recovery will end in that fairytale fashion, although what cannot be denied is that Cabanas is back and happier and more alive than ever. And that more than anything else is the best news that all his well-wishers, many of whom paid homage to him at the Estadio Azteca, could possibly receive.