By Ralph Hannah in Asuncion
Two years, two months and 20 days was how long it took Salvador Cabanas to complete arguably the greatest footballing comeback of all time.
Two years of fighting for his life after coming within an inch of losing it in a horrific attack. Two years of hearing doctors tell him that he would never again step on the sacred grass of a professional football pitch - no thanks to the bullet that remains lodged in his cranium. But most importantly, two years in which the brilliant Paraguayan forward and ex-America star never faltered in his determination to play again.
On Saturday the former South American Footballer of the Year started for his hometown club 12 de Octubre from Itagua, competing in the third-tier Primera B Metropolitana. He played 41 minutes before being substituted by coach Rolando Chilavert, brother of goal-scoring goalkeeper Jose Luis. It was a miraculous return to football for the 31-year-old after being shot in the head in the bathroom of a Mexico City nightclub back in January 2010.
Local newspaper ABC Color reported that “Salvador surprised with his good movement, taking part in 12 attacks”.
The Guarani Dream | Cabanas has never given up hope of representing Paraguay again
On the eve of the game Cabanas spoke to radio station 780 AM and publicly thanked all the people who prayed for him to return; before adding, “I never thought about leaving this [football] because it is my job … it was always in my mind to return.”
Although the first half finished goalless, Cabanas was able to celebrate a win on his return thanks to two second-half goals in three minutes from Ariel Roa and Arnaldo Alonso. This was the first game of the new season in the Metropolitana, a division made up of teams in and around the capital Asuncion in which most of the players are amateurs or semi-professionals.
|Just 850 people turned out to watch the latest step on the road to recovery for Cabanas ... but the emotion of the afternoon was felt throughout South American football|
It was a modest return then for a player who, from the Azteca to the Monumental, from the Maracana to El Campin, has trodden the turf of Latin America's most hallowed football venues. Just 850 people turned out to watch the latest step on the road to recovery for Cabanas, and Paraguay's major news outlets had the distraction of an Olimpia-Cerro Porteno Superclasico the following day to pull focus; but the emotion of the afternoon was felt throughout South American football.
'El Mariscal' can now look forward to 17 more games as he tries to take the Tejedores back to the Intermedia division from which they were relegated in 2011. His courage, determination and perseverance has already been an inspiration to many and in a recent interview with the BBC World Football Podcast he sent a special message to Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba telling both the player and his family to stay strong.
Muamba may be a long way from even thinking about playing football again but here in Paraguay, Cabanas has once more proven that anything is possible.