Roque Santa Cruz makes final run at glory for Olimpia in Copa Libertadores
When the Champions League resumes this week, Roque Santa Cruz will not be part of it.
Indeed, during his 17 years in Europe, he didn't make the impact that Bayern Munich expected when they bought him as a 17-year-old in 1999. The hope then was that they were acquiring a candidate to be one of the world's greatest strikers. The talent was there; so was the work ethic and the intelligence. The problem was that his lanky frame proved unable to deal consistently with the demands of top level football and his career has been blighted by a series of injuries.
Santa Cruz could have been much more. Even so, he still has much to look back on with pride: more than 100 games and over 30 goals for Paraguay, for example, and, fitness permitting, some fine displays for Bayern Munich, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Real Betis and Malaga, as well as a quick spell in Mexico with Cruz Azul.
Last year he went back home, to Paraguayan giants Olimpia in Asuncion, where he started all those years ago. And so this week, instead of the Champions League, Santa Cruz may feature in the South American equivalent, the Copa Libertadores.
Olimpia are through to the final qualifying round, where they'll visit Botafogo of Brazil. They are still alive in the competition thanks to Santa Cruz. Last week they were 2-1 up in the second leg at home to Independiente del Valle of Ecuador, the 2016 runners-up. It was not enough. Olimpia were on their way out on the away goals rule. Santa Cruz came off the bench and with less than ten minutes to go, he met a cross from the left with a towering header and sent his side through to the next round.
That cross was supplied by another substitute, 17-year-old Walter Bogado, who wasn't even born when Santa Cruz scored his previous two goals in the competition, against local rivals Cerro Porteno in February of 1999.
Much has happened to the Libertadores while Santa Cruz was playing across the Atlantic. That tournament in 1999 was the final year before an expansion. Back then, it was a competition for 21 teams: five groups of four plus the reigning champions, who went straight into the knockout phase. There they were joined by the 15 sides who made it through from the group phase, which eliminated just one team in four.
From the following year, and bankrolled by TV money, the tournament grew, with some sort of qualifying round always boiling down to a group phase involving 32 teams in eight groups of four, with only half of those teams making the cut: a much more satisfactory solution. And that, in essence, is the way that things stand today, although this year there have been some important changes.
The qualifying process has grown, with a total of three rounds before the group phase kicks off, and the tournament now runs all year. Before it was always squeezed into a semester: the first in recent decades. Now it runs from late January all the way until the end of November.
It's a format with an obvious problem: the European summer transfer window.
If this was 1999, for example, and Olimpia had progressed to the knockout stages, they would have lost Santa Cruz, who signed for Bayern Munich at that very moment in the season. The constant selling of South American talent has gained pace since then, meaning there is a real possibility of the best players leaving the competition just as it reaches the decisive stages. Perhaps Bogado will be among them: his beautifully delivered left-foot cross last week will surely have been seen by top European clubs, who will be adding his details to their database.
But there will be no more foreign jaunts for Santa Cruz. He's now winding down his career at the club where it all began. But his many admirers will be hoping that he still has enough gas left in the tank to make an impact on this new, extended version of the Copa Libertadores.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.