Happy memories as Fabian Caballero returns to Dundee

After a week where he has been measured up for a kilt, declared his intention to change his name to 'MacCaballero' and travelled on a supporters' bus to see Dundee draw 0-0 with Celtic, we might suspect someone expert in courting the popular vote.
Fabian Caballero says playing for Dundee provided him with the happiest days of his career. Picture: Malcolm IrvingFabian Caballero says playing for Dundee provided him with the happiest days of his career. Picture: Malcolm Irving
Fabian Caballero says playing for Dundee provided him with the happiest days of his career. Picture: Malcolm Irving

So there’s little surprise when Fabian Caballero reveals he is returning to Paraguay next week to play a part in the country’s forthcoming presidential election as an advisor to Hugo Ramirez, of the right-wing Colorado party. “I want to help the Paraguay people,” Caballero explains.

He is sincere about celebrating his ties with Dundee as well. The 40-year-old’s association extends more deeply than having played more than 120 games for the club over two spells. They were, he says, the happiest days of his career, including a short spell with Arsenal.

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His daughter, Tahira, was born in the city. Caballero has indicated he would like to return as a coach when he has obtained his badges in Paraguay, where he now calls home. “My daughter is Scottish,” he says. “She is Dundonian!

“She is 14 now. She was very happy in Dundee. When anyone asks her ‘are you Paraguayan?’ she says: ‘No I am not, I am Scottish.’

“Maybe she will come back in the future, to university or something. I will come back to Dundee to coach. I need to go to school to get my badges. I have coached in Paraguay but I don’t have badges. One day I will come back as coach. Not now, in the future.”

Caballero once considered processing a nationality change in order to play for Paraguay – his wife, Tahiana, is Paraguayan. He had accepted international honours with Argentina would be unlikely. “It didn’t happen in the end – my representative did not do anything about it,” he says.

There’s also a sense of what might have been had he not suffered a serious knee injury following a crunching double challenge by Jason de Vos and Kevin McDonald during a Dundee derby in September 2000.

Some good did come from this otherwise bitter blow – Dundee pulled off one of the most surprising signing coups in Scottish football history when player-manager Ivano Bonetti persuaded Claudio Caniggia to come to Dens Park as his replacement.

Caballero, rehabilitating in Italy at the time, was impressed. Caniggia was one of his heroes growing up in north-east Argentina. So there was considerable excitement when they finally started a game together against Hibernian towards the end of the 2000-01 season, as Caballero began his comeback. It was a let down. Dundee lost 2-0 and Caniggia never played for the club again.

But Caballero enjoys a stronger connection, hence his return. He does not let the small matter of being sacked after Dundee were put in administration in November 2003 get between him and the club. He re-signed ten months later after bumping into manager Jim Duffy in a Broughty Ferry coffee shop after a brief spell in Dubai.

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Visocchi’s had become a favoured base of operations for foreign players since the Italian invasion. It continued to be so even after the Bonetti brothers left. “I had gone to Dubai and I came back for two weeks,” recalls Caballero. “I was in Visocchi’s and I met Jim Duffy. He asked me what I was doing in Dundee. He said why don’t you come back? So I signed another contract with Dundee.”

Caballero has returned once more to Dundee for two charity events – last night’s tribute dinner in his honour and a game at Lochee United’s Thomson Park tomorrow when the striker will once again pull on a Dundee jersey against a Lochee United/Tayport old boys’ select, kick-off 1pm. It’s been trailed as his “last ever game in the city”. However, he looks well enough for this claim to seem questionable.

“I have not been back since the day I left in 2005,” Caballero says. “I am happy to be back. I had five years here, they were the best of my career. I was happy and the fans were always so good to me.”

He brought Dundee some luck on Wednesday from his seat among the away fans. But the visitors couldn’t present Caballero with what would have been a historic victory – the last time Dundee won at Celtic Park was courtesy of a Caballero double at the end of the 2000-01 season. “That was my most memorable day as a Dundee player,” he says.

He also scored twice against Rangers, Dundee’s opponents today, in a 2-2 draw 15 years ago. There’s a reason why Caballero’s presence can still rouse supporters and inspire former Dundee players, Colin Cameron and Steven Robb among them, to turn up and play alongside him tomorrow.

He already keeps up with Bonetti on WhatsApp, former team-mate Beto Carranza, now an agent in Argentina, and even turned up at Caniggia’s hotel in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital, when he heard his old teammate was in town.

They went out for dinner and traded memories of their days in Dundee together.

It seems like another lifetime when the likes of Caniggia, Juan Sara, Georgi Nemsadze and Fabrizio Ravanelli turned up in Dundee. But Caballero leaves his greatest revelation to last. The best player he played with was not Ravanelli. Nor was it even Caniggia, the World Cup star. It was, he says, a Scot – midfielder Gavin Rae.

l Fabian Caballero is back in Tayside by invitation of 
Coloured Soul Dundee Ltd to raise funds for Schwarzkopf Professional’s Shaping Futures campaign.