You would be hard pushed to find a playing career with more unexpected twists and turns than that of Carlos Roa.
The Argentinian goalkeeper, who played a key part in his country's memorable victory over England at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, has seen some extraordinary highs and lows in his time, from sporting successes to battles against malaria and testicular cancer. In between came his decision to become a devout Christian and turn his back on the game he loved. Today, though, the 35-year-old has come full circle and is rediscovering his passion for the game with modest Argentinian side Olimpo de Bahia Blanca.
Seventeen years after his debut in the Argentine first division and nine years since his last appearance there, Roa made a promising start in his first game back last week. His new club Olimpo, who are fighting to remain in the country's top flight, secured an important point away to Rosario Central. And though Lechuga - or 'Lettuce' as he is known on account of his vegetarianism - put in an assured performance and looks ready for the challenge ahead, nothing in the sporting arena will come close to the fight he faced last year, when he managed to overcome testicular cancer after an operation and months of debilitating chemotherapy.
"I spent almost a year out of the game (with the illness), which is why I was desperate to get back and play again," said Roa after his comeback match. The custodian's desire to return to football is understandable when you consider the circumstances in which he had to quit. Playing at the time for Spanish club Albacete, Roa simply stopped showing up for training. Rumours circulated in the press of an illness, but no one knew quite what it was. It would be months before the player faced the media with his diagnosis. "This is an extremely difficult time for me. The word cancer hits you so hard. Nonetheless, I will battle this disease with all the faith in the world. Where there's light, there's hope," Roa told journalists.
Just when it looked as if the medical treatment would put paid to his playing days, Roa surprised everyone by making a miraculous recovery. In early 2004, with the memories of his illness still fresh, the player returned to training and began playing for the Spanish third division side Constancia de Inca. "I'll always be grateful to those who helped me when I was at my lowest ebb. I was fortunate to be able to maintain close ties with the profession and work towards my comeback," he said.
His best years
Roa built a long and successful career out of his lightning reflexes and consistency between the posts. It came as no surprise when, in the late 1980s, he made the No1 jersey at Racing Club de Avellaneda his own. Shortly after, in 1990, the goalkeeper suffered his first major setback after contracting malaria during his club's pre-season tour of Africa.
Once fully recovered, Roa enjoyed a successful spell with another Argentinian side Lanus before moving to Mallorca in Spain, where he would spend his best years. His outstanding form earned him a call-up to the Argentina squad, and by the time the 1998 FIFA World Cup came around he was his country's first-choice keeper. Roa impressed during the competition's group games, where he did not concede a goal, but his proudest moment came on 30 June, when Argentina faced old rivals England for a place in the quarter-finals.
Roa was one of the heroes of a pulsating game in Saint-Etienne that went to penalties after goals from Gabriel Batistuta, Alan Shearer, a precocious Michael Owen and Javier Zanetti left the teams tied at 2-2. With emotions at fever pitch, Lechuga emerged as the hero in the shoot-out, saving from Paul Ince and David Batty to seal England's fate.
That win sparked an unforgettable party for the Albicelestes and cemented his place as one of his country's most respected keepers. Unfortunately for Roa and Argentina, that would be as far as they would go at France 98, after losing to an inspired Dutch team in the following round.
Such were his performances that year that Manchester United made a very attractive offer for his services. However, right at the peak of his game, Roa shocked everyone with the announcement that he could no longer play football as his newfound faith, Seventh-Day Adventism, prohibited working on Saturdays the Sabbath day. "God is worth more than ten million dollars," he was quoted as saying at the time. "Many of my team-mates at Mallorca said I was crazy, but I didn't care. I had the love and support of my wife and God, which is more than enough." However, in 2000 the player had a change of heart and decided to return to football.
Looking to the future
Today, restored to full health and sporting his trademark beard, Roa accepts that the glory days of Mallorca and France 98 are a thing of the past. His future lies with Olimpo, whom he joined just days after the start of Argentina's Apertura championship. "The people of Bahia Blanca still have faith in me despite my long lay-off, and that obliges me to give everything I've got out on the pitch. Many people had written me off, but that was just an added motivation for me," he said.
Roa's debut was very positive according to the local media. The newspaper Olé described his keeping as "secure", adding: "He was not at fault for the goal and was always in the correct position when called upon." As the player said himself, it was an encouraging start: "I want to continue doing what I know and love which is playing football. The illness is now behind me, so I hope I can enjoy myself from here on in."
First Name: Carlos
Date of birth: 15 August 1969
Place of birth: Santa Fe (Argentina)
Playing career: Racing Club de Avellaneda (Argentina), Club Atletico Lanus (Argentina), RCD Mallorca (Spain), Albacete (Spain), Club Olimpo de Bahia Blanca (Argentina).
Argentina caps: 17
Honours: FIFA World Cup
Quarter-finals France 1998 (five games, conceding four goals)
Winner with Lanus in 1996
Spanish Super Cup
Winner with Mallorca in 1998