Roque Santa Cruz: Paraguay’s Greatest

Roque Santa Cruz: Paraguay’s Greatest

Player Profile: Roque Santa Cruz

Date of Birth: 16/08/1981

Height: 6 ft 4 in 

Position: Striker 

National Team: Paraguay 

International Caps: 112

International Goals: 32

Club Career 

At the age of 9 Roque Santa Cruz signed for Club Olimpia Asunción’s youth academy where he became an almost instant success. Playing as a striker he was the club’s top youth scorer for a number of seasons and his fine form soon caught the attention of first team coach Luis Cubilla. So much so he was asked to train with the senior team in 1997, aged just 15. That same year he made his senior league debut, but had to wait until the following year for more game time.

The 1998 season proved to be his breakthrough year. Although making just nine league appearances, Santa Cruz scored three vital goals as Olimpia were crowned Primera Division Paraguaya champions. 

Santa Cruz helped Olimpia win back to back league titles in 1999 with 10 goals in 14 appearances and was later named Paraguayan Footballer of the Year. His performances soon attracted attention from Europe’s elite teams including Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. The latter secured his signature for US$7 million, making him the most expensive player in Paraguayan history at that time.

After departing Olimpia, Santa Cruz revealed he and a number of his former teammates were threatened and mistreated by club president Osvaldo Domínguez Dibb. Intimidating players with firearms, firing shots into a ceiling and urinating in players’ cars were all part of the hostile treatment. Life would be completely different in Europe and for the better.

Santa Cruz was a prominent figure in Bayern’s 99/00 Bundesliga success, though his goal scoring record didn’t quite live up to his heroics in South America. During his debut season he bagged nine goals in 48 appearances in all competitions, his most prolific season in Germany.

Injuries and a packed strike force including Giovane Élber, Roy Makaay and Claudio Pizarro meant Santa Cruz soon fell down the pecking order at Bayern. He spent eight years in Germany where he made 238 appearances in all competitions, scored 54 goals, won five league titles, four DFB-Pokal, two DFB-Ligapokal and one Champions League.

But despite a decent trophy haul the Paraguay international never really got going in Germany, and in 2007 handed in a transfer request. Real Betis were his preferred destination, but when the Spanish team failed to meet Bayern’s estimation he eventually signed for Premier League side Blackburn Rovers.

After completing a move to Ewood Park in July 2007 for around £3.5million the Paraguay forward made an instant impact scoring with just his third touch in English football. Throughout the 2007/08 season Santa Cruz would go on to forge a prolific partnership with South African Benni McCarthy. The Paraguay forward soon became a fan favourite finishing the season as the club’s top scorer with 22 goals in all competitions, 19 of those coming in the league, as Rovers finished 7th. His fine form in front of goal saw him win Blackburn’s Player of the Season award.

That summer numerous clubs were rumoured to be interested in signing Santa Cruz, but he committed his future to Blackburn by putting pen to paper on a new four year contract.

His goal scoring form continued at the start of the new season, but when Manchester City, fresh from a takeover, came calling the Paraguayan’s head was turned. The Sky Blues offered £12 million and £16 million in the January transfer window but Blackburn stood firm. They demanded £25million for their star striker, which City failed to meet.

Santa Cruz’s form dipped in the following weeks and he finished the season with just four league goals. That summer, Santa Cruz would finally be granted the move to Manchester City after Rovers accepted an offer of £17.5million.

The move reunited Santa Cruz with Mark Hughes, who he’d worked under during his first season at Blackburn Rovers. But the Welshman’s City tenure was over in December and he was replaced by Roberto Mancini, which proved to be bad news for Santa Cruz. 

After making just 19 appearances in his first season at the Etihad, Santa Cruz was finding game time hard to come by under Mancini. He made just one league appearance during the 2010/11 season and in January 2011 he rejoined Blackburn Rovers on loan for the remainder of the season. He made nine league appearances for Blackburn but failed to rediscover his goal scoring form.

Santa Cruz was deemed surplus to requirements at City and soon found himself on the move again. In August 2011 he joined Real Betis on loan and played a vital role in cementing their place in La Liga. He scored seven goals in 33 league appearances, and forged a fruitful partnership with Ruben Castro.

In the summer of 2012, once his loan deal at Betis was up, Santa Cruz had numerous offers to consider. Mark Hughes, now at QPR, wanted to link up with the striker for a third time, while Betis also wanted to sign him on a permanent basis. But his high wages proved to be a stumbling block for the La Liga side. Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina also expressed their desire to sign Santa Cruz, but that rumour soon faded.

Eventually Santa Cruz made his move and returned to La Liga, this time linking up with Malaga on a season long loan. He scored eight goals in 31 La Liga appearances that season, his most prolific league campaign since his first at Ewood Park back in 07/08.

The following summer it was announced Santa Cruz would stay at Malaga on a permanent basis. He penned a three year contract and went on to make 43 league appearances in two seasons. Despite endearing himself to the fans, he didn’t quite live up to the hype and in December 2014 he was on the move once again.

This time the Paraguayan striker was off to Mexico where he penned a two year deal with Cruz Azul. His contract was worth €2 million per year and made him the highest paid player in the Liga MX. But things didn’t quite go to plan.

In just his second appearance for the club Santa Cruz limped off the field with a thigh injury. He was sidelined for around a month and went on to score just four league goals in ten appearances. His time in Mexico was short lived and in August 2015 he returned to Malaga on a season long loan.

His second loan spell at the club was blighted by injures. He made just 17 league appearances all season and was dropped from the Paraguay national squad for the 2016 Copa America due to a knee injury. Things went from bad to worse as parent club Cruz Azul announced his time in Mexico was up, paving the way for a famous homecoming.

On 8th June 2016 Santa Cruz re-signed for hometown side Club Olimpia at the age of 35. Later that summer he returned to the pitch, 20 years on from his debut appearance for the club all those years earlier. And in typical fashion he was on the scoresheet much to the delight of the Olimpia faithful.

Over the course of the next three seasons Santa Cruz would play 92 league games, scoring 39 goals. During this time, Olimpia returned to the summit of Paraguayan football, dominating the Primera División in 2018 and 2019.

Now aged 39 Santa Cruz is preparing for his 24th season in professional football, and like a fine wine, he seems to get better with age.

International Career

At an early age it was clear Roque Santa Cruz would be a huge player for Paraguay and he was awarded his international debut at the age of 17 after impressing for the under 20s.

He bagged his first international goal in 1999 and went on to score at three Copa America tournaments, as well as at the 2002 World Cup.

Two goals in a friendly against Honduras in 2015 saw him become Paraguay’s highest goal scorer of all time, a record he still holds today with 32 goals. His 112 appearances for his country make him the third most capped player in Paraguay history.

Did you know? Interesting facts about Roque Santa Cruz

– Santa Cruz scored hat trick in Blackburn’s 5-3 defeat to Wigan in December 2007 making him the first player in over ten years in English football to be on the losing side after bagging a hat trick. Dwight Yorke was the last player to do it in 1996.

– In 2006 Santa Cruz was voted the sexiest man to playing at the World Cup by German magazine Kicker.

– Santa Cruz became the 60th player in Copa America history to score a hat trick in the competition.

– Santa Cruz is a national citizen of Spain.