Copa Libertadores 2013: Comeback king Ronaldinho leads Galo to first title
When Ronaldinho, overweight and under-motivated, left Flamengo amidst a cloud of discontent and controversy, it looked as if his career was spirally towards an ignominious end. Just over a year later, he’s back at the summit, the tale of redemption complete.
The twice World Footballer of the Year now joins the exclusive group of players to have won the World Cup, Champions League and Copa Libertadores after his side Atlético Mineiro overturned a two goal deficit to beat Olimpia of Paraguay on penalties – the first major continental triumph in the club’s history.
In many ways Ronaldinho’s comeback poetically mirrors, even embodies, the manner in which Atlético won their maiden title. An insipid performance in the first leg in Asunción was punished by goals from Alejandro Silva and Wilson Pittoni and the advantage swung firmly in favour of the side known as the ‘King of Cups’.
Nevertheless, in their trademark attacking style and roared on by a boisterous 60,000 strong home crowd, Galo levelled the tie thanks to Jo’s instinctive strike and Leonardo Silva’s looping header, taking the game to penalties. And just as they had in their carbon copy semi-final against Newell’s, Atlético kept their cool in the shoot-out to emerge victorious, sending the Galoucura into raptures. The phoenix, or rather rooster, had risen from the flames.
Aside from the pertinent example of Ronaldinho, revival was apt motif for a number of the squad and indeed the club itself. Former Manchester City and Everton striker Jo, much maligned during his unsuccessful spell in England, finished the tournament as top scorer with seven and earned a recall to the national squad. Diego Tardelli too failed to make the grade in Europe but had a fine campaign, chipping in with six goals, while manager Cuca was able to finally shake off his ‘unlucky’ tag. For the large, loud but long suffering fanbase, the endearing triumph of this band of misfits seemed somewhat fitting.
That’s not to say Atlético didn’t benefit from some good fortune along the way. The red card for Sao Paulo’s Lucio tipped the balance at a crucial moment in the round of 16 and they were an injury-time spot kick away from elimination in the quarter-finals against Xolos de Tijuana until Duvier Riascos saw his penalty saved by Victor. A floodlight failure in the semi second leg – a dose of jeitinho, divine or otherwise – allowed Cuca’s men to regroup and rethink before substitute Guilherme struck the late equaliser.
Big moments went Galo’s way in the final too. With the benefit of hindsight it’s arguable to say that Freddy Bareiro’s guilt edge miss in the first leg would have given Atlético too much of a mountain to climb, while two costly slips in the return also proved decisive. Had Pittoni not lost his footing in the build-up to Jo’s opener or Juan Ferreyra not fallen when faced with an open goal Olimpia could well have secured their fourth title. Atlético certainly rode their luck at time but, as the old adage goes, fortune favoured the brave.
Having said that, Atlético were indeed worthy winners. Following on from 2nd place in last year’s Brasileirão, they began in barnstorming fashion and were the only side to a 100% record after five games. Free-flowing, attack-minded football yielded 29 goals in the 14 games as the trio of Bernard, Tardelli and Jo ran amok, given the platform to flourish by pugnacious midfield duo of Pierre (labelled the “smallest, skinniest really hard bloke since Begbie” by James Young) and Josue. Penalty hero Victor, captain Rever and right back Marcos Rocha all made telling contributions throughout.
But it was Ronaldinho at the heart of it all. Gone is the pace of yesteryear but the imagination, outstanding vision and ability to execute what others haven’t even seen still remain. Ronaldinho reborn was the footballing incarnation of the old malandro spirit, the flawed genius they all looked to for that game-changing moment of brilliance. But with the swagger and toothy smile, came end product too: four goals and eight assists a testament to his importance. Although he didn’t sparkle during the final, Ronaldinho was able to repay the faith shown in him by the club that rescued him at his lowest ebb.
At the final whistle, among all the wild celebration, came Ronaldinho’s rebuttal to those who had dared to question him: “Everyone said that I was finished and that my time was over. Let them talk now…”
If Atlético’s victory managed to represent the redemptive story of victory against the odds, in the context of the tournament beaten finalists Olimpia should really been seen as the true underdog. The least fancied of the three Paraguayan sides in the tournament, the fact that they were a penalty shootout away from victory is remarkable when you consider the financial disparity compared to their Brazilian counterparts. Throw in the sale of star midfielder Richard Ortiz to Toluca prior to the semi-finals and el Decano can justifiably consider themselves unlucky not to have capitalised on their two goal first leg lead.
Under the guidance of Ever Hugo Almeida – himself vying to become only the seventh player to win the tournament both as a coach and player – Olimpia topped a difficult group containing semi-finalists Newell’s and Universidad de Chile, before seeing off Tigre, Brazilian champions Fluminense and impressive Colombian outfit Santa Fe en route to the final. Stand out players include goalkeeper Martin Silva and his full back namesake Alejandro, both of whom strengthening their case for a regular place in the Uruguay squad, while the lion share of the goals were shared between Bareiro, Ferreyra and Juan Manuel Salgueiro.
The theme of the underdog was a constant thread running through the narrative of this year’s Libertadores. Big sides, such as last year’s winners Corinthians, fell early while the likes of Xolos de Tijuana and Real Garcilaso had fairytale debuts, making the quarter-finals. Particularly impressive when you consider that both sides have only came into existence within the last six years!
In what was an eventful and unpredictable tournament even by Libertadores standards, Atlético Mineiro repeated what Corinthians managed to do twelve months ago by winning the continent’s premier competition for the first time. While the talismanic idol of last year’s final, one Juan Roman Riquelme, had to settle for an almost fittingly quixotic ending, it was an altogether happier finale for Ronaldinho and o Galo.
With mission complete, what next for the buck-toothed wizard? A recall in time for the World Cup perhaps? It might seem unlikely but, as the Libertadores proved, write Ronnie off at your peril.