Salvador Cabanas: The Man Utd target whose career was destroyed by an assassin's bullet

Salvador Cabanas Club America
Alfredo Estrella
In January 2010, the striker was looking forward to the World Cup and a future move to Europe - but one ill-fated nightclub visit changed everything

All it took was a matter of seconds for Salvador Cabanas' world to come crashing down around him.

Footballers know well that in the blink of an eye everything can change: a snapped cruciate ligament, broken ankle or lapse in discipline can send a promising career into an irreversible downward spiral.

In the former Paraguay international's case, though, it was not a stray boot or elbow on the pitch which served to shatter his dreams. A single bullet fired in the bathroom of a Mexico City nightclub destroyed his ascendancy as a striker of the highest quality and came close to taking his life.

Cabanas made a miraculous recovery from the attack, but the real battle was still to come.

Going into 2010, Cabanas appeared to have the football world at his feet. A relative late-starter in a region where talent tends to be spotted young and exported at the first chance, Cabanas began playing professionally in his hometown of Itaugua, located on the outskirts of Paraguayan capital Asuncion, for 12 de Octubre.

An unsuccessful spell with Guarani ended after a single season, upon which he was sent back to the modest 12. It was not until he moved to Chile and then Mexico that Cabanas began to turn heads, smashing 29 goals in 53 games for Audax Italiano, and then 61 in 106 for Jaguares de Chiapas.

His first Paraguay call-up had come in 2003 but he remained a fringe player behind the likes of Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Cuevas and sat on the bench for the entirety of the 2006 World Cup as the Guarani bombed out in the first round.

Something seemed to click on the way back from Germany, however, as, at the age of 25, Cabanas suddenly stepped up a gear. That same summer he had swapped Jaguares for Mexican giants America, who saw instant returns on their investment, with 29 goals in his first season.

In both 2007 and 2008, the Paraguayan would finish as top scorer in the Copa Libertadores, while the former saw him awarded El Pais' prestigious South American footballer of the year award, joining the likes of Pele, Zico, Diego Maradona, Mario Kempes and Socrates in taking the prize.

It was not just America who were benefiting either; having netted just once in 14 caps prior to the 2006 World Cup, Cabanas scored three goals at the following year's World Cup and another six to help Gerardo Martino's Albirroja to third place in CONMEBOL qualification for South Africa, ahead of heavyweights Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia.

Cabañas PS

At the time of the shooting, the striker – known to all as El Mariscal (the Admiral) for his strapping physique and masterful, almost arrogant presence on the pitch – had just turned down a lucrative move to Europe in order to stay at America.

“When this all happened I had a pre-contract agreement for $1.7 million (£1.35m) to join Manchester United or another big club,” he told ABC Color in 2014. “In America, I got my salary doubled and they gave me an apartment in Acapulco and another in Cancun to keep me there.”

On the evening of January 25, with his future at America seemingly secured for the time being, Cabanas and his wife went out to Mexico City nightspot Bar Bar, where he became embroiled in an argument and, upon entering the restroom, was cornered, shot once in the head and left for dead.

News of Cabanas' attempted murder shook the very heart of Mexican and South American football. The striker lay in a coma for 10 days, on the brink between life and death, before finally pulling through.

He maintains that his impeccable physical condition proved the difference – “Football saved my life,” he told the BBC – but he nevertheless underwent four months of gruelling treatment and rehabilitation before he was allowed to fly home to Paraguay. The bullet that was meant to kill him remains lodged in his skull to this day.

Cabanas' would-be assassin was known on the streets of Mexico City by the name of 'JJ', Jose Jorge Balderas Garza. JJ allegedly worked for the feared hitman Edgar 'Barbie' Valdez Villarreal, who at the time of the shooting had taken control of Los Negros, the armed wing of the Beltran-Leyva drug trafficking cartel.

Valdez, who is serving a 49-year prison sentence in the US, admitted to sheltering Balderas in one of his safe-houses following the attack. The assailant himself was also imprisoned last year in Mexico on charges relating to organised crime activity, but he has never been brought to trial for the attack on Cabanas.

Although the player was initially bullish about his chances of returning to professional football and even began training at the start of 2011 with Asuncion side Libertad, it became clear that the damage caused by the bullet had left him unable to compete again at the top level.

The following year, he received a hero's welcome as he came back to first club 12 de Octubre, now languishing in the third tier of Paraguayan football and played a bit part in their promotion back to the Intermedia.

Cabanas' final attempt to restart his career came in 2014, with Brazilian Serie D side Tanabi, but it lasted little more than a month as it became clear that the former Paraguay and America great could not keep up with his team-mates.

Salvador Cabanas

Salvador Cabanas

Off the pitch, too, things were far from straightforward for the striker.

America's decision to rescind his contract shortly after the shooting provoked an acrimonious legal battle between Cabanas and the club, while his woes were compounded in 2011 when Mexican authorities issued an arrest warrant on tax evasion charges, which his wife Maria Alonso claimed to Radio Monumental prevented him from returning to the nation to collaborate with the attempted murder investigation.

Cabanas, who accused his agents of embezzling up to $17m (£13.5m) in earnings over the course of his career, went back to Itaugua to scrape a living in the family bakery.

“Here I am, trying to recover. I still have a lot of faith, despite losing everything,” he told AFP in 2014.

“His professional life was cut short at the height of his career and then he was taken advantage of, by his partner, his agent and lawyer,” the star's father added.

That ill-fated evening in Bar Bar robbed Cabanas of the chance to represent his nation, fielding their best side in a generation under the watchful eye of Martino, at South Africa 2010.

It took from him his health, his livelihood and his economic security.

Now 39 and back in Paraguay after a short stint coaching in Mexico, the former striker insists that he has forgiven Balderas for firing the bullet that destroyed his dreams of World Cup glory.

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“Forgiveness has to come from the heart,” Cabanas, who still bears a scar on his right temple marking the spot where the projectile struck, said in a recent interview with Tigo Sports.

“I have forgiven those who hurt me; that gives me peace.

“I can only thank God for giving me a second chance, and I continue to enjoy my life.”