World Cup: Inspired Paraguay reaches quarterfinals


Reporting from Pretoria, South Africa — Physically, Salvador Cabanas was half a world away when Edgar Barreto prepared to take the penalty shot that would help decide Paraguay’s World Cup future.

Spiritually, however, Barreto said he felt like his former teammate was standing right behind him. “His spirit is with the team,” Barreto said. “He’s always close to us.”

Cabanas should have been on the field Tuesday as Paraguay, which defeated Japan, 5-3, on penalty kicks after a 0-0 draw, moved into the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in its history. Instead he was in South America, recuperating from a near-fatal shooting that left him with a bullet in his head.

Gone, perhaps, but certainly not forgotten.

“Before we go out to train or whatever, we think of him. We know that he’s over there but we know he’s supporting us,” Paraguay striker Edgar Benitez said.

Which is why Cabanas’ ex-teammates are doing what they can to support him. Knowing they were guaranteed only three games in South Africa, the Paraguayans dedicated their first-round matches to Cabanas.

They went on to win their group, eliminating the defending tournament champions from Italy along the way. “We called him in his room,” midfielder Cristian Riveros said. “We sent him a big hug.”

Then came Tuesday, when Paraguay battled Japan through 120 scoreless minutes, setting up a penalty-kick shootout to determine which team would move on. Japan was the strongest team in the tournament on free kicks. Paraguay, with three goals, was the lowest-scoring group winner in the World Cup.

Yet it was Japan that flinched when Yuichi Komano’s shot in the third round struck the crossbar. When Nelson Valdez and Oscar Cardozo followed by burying their attempts, Paraguay’s improbable run continued.

“We’ve dedicated this to him,” said Barreto, who set the tone for the shootout by beating Japanese keeper Eiji Kawashima with the first shot.

It’s unlikely any of this happens without Cabanas, whose six goals in World Cup qualifying led the team and made Paraguay the second South American team to clinch a berth in the tournament.

Then came the morning of Jan. 25 when Cabanas, in Mexico City to play for his club team, walked into restroom on his way out of a trendy nightclub in an upscale neighborhood.

He never walked out.

Shot in the head at close range, Cabanas was originally given little chance to live. Six months later he wants to play soccer again — and even though the bullet remains lodged in his brain, doctors have learned better than to bet against Cabanas.

Paraguay is also defying heavy odds.

By beating Japan, it became the first Paraguayan team to get past the second round. Paraguay plays Spain on Saturday.

“It’s historic. But we’re not satisfied with that,” said Cardozo. “We want to go further. And we have the talent to go further.”

They certainly have the motivation, said Paraguay Coach Gerardo Martino, who broke down in tears on the bench after Cardozo’s winning kick.

“Salvador’s story is a very sensitive issue for the whole of Paraguay,” Martino said earlier this month. “He is a great inspiration to us and for us. To do it in tribute to Salvador is a big motivation.”

Added defender Aureliano Torres: “We know that he’s enjoying [this] like we are.”