Former Man City striker Santa Cruz leads the ex-Prem players starring in Paraguay, but Adebayor had his contract torn up


FORMER Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz was on target for Olimpia at the weekend.

It was a goal that makes him the top scorer in the first national league to get going in South America since the coronavirus enforced shutdown in March.

Paraguay was wisely playing behind closed doors even while Europe was still staging matches with full stadiums.

The outcome of its caution is a virus death toll of just 41, allowing them to restart the football championship last Tuesday.

The local league is much more interesting than might be expected from a poor country with a population of little more than 7 million.

There is the rivalry of the traditional big two, Olimpia and Cerro Porteno. And over the last 20 years Libertad have emerged as a major force.

Coached by one time Oxford United boss Ramon Diaz, they are the current league leaders.

These teams are usually competitive in continental competitions.

Olimpia have three times been South American champions, and before the shut down both they and Libertad had made a good start to this year’s version of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League.

And as a show of the surprising strength in depth of the Paraguayan championship, in the qualifying rounds of the Libertadores little Guarani eliminated Brazilian giants Corinthians – at best the fourth Paraguayan team getting the best of the biggest club in the biggest city of the continent.

Another small but traditional Paraguayan club, Nacional, reached the final of the Libertadores six years ago.

The South American adventure of Emmanuel Adebayor proved a short one. He was signed at the start of the year to partner Santa Cruz in the Olimpia attack.

But he only played four games before the shutdown, when he headed back to Togo.

The loss of revenue caused by the stoppage has made him too expensive, and his contract has been torn up.

But there are other names that might be familiar to Premier League fans. At centre back for Olimpia, though he was dropped after a poor performance last Wednesday, is Antolin Alcaraz, once of Wigan and Everton.

At the age of 40, former Sunderland defender Paulo Da Silva still gets a game for Libertad, and his one time Stadium of Light colleague Cristian Riveros broke forward from midfield to score a cracker for Nacional at the weekend.

All of these players were important members of the Paraguayan national team squad that did so well in the 2010 World Cup.

They reached the quarter finals, where they lost to Spain – but they gave the eventual champions perhaps the toughest knock out game they experienced in that run of three consecutive tournament wins, with South Africa 2010 flanked by two triumphs in the Euros.

That last eight match a decade ago may even have turned out differently had big striker Oscar Cardozo not missed a penalty.

His aim was better at the weekend, glancing home a header and setting up the winner as Libertad beat San Lorenzo 2-1.

The Paraguayan league, though, is not just an elephants’ graveyard. Alongside the veterans are some emerging young talents.

The stand out from the two rounds since the restart has been Isidro Pitta, a well built striker who plays for Sportivo Luqueno.

With his ginger hair Pitta is an unlikely Paraguayan. Powerful and well built, there is something of Irish mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor about him.

¿Marcará tendencia el festejo de @IsidroPitta a lo Conor McGregor?

It is a comparison that Pitta seems keen to play up.

He has scored three goals since the restart, and celebrates them by moving towards the camera with McGregor’s trademark floppy armed walk.

Isidro Pitta is a fitting symbol for a league that keeps punching above its weight.


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