Velez ’94: El Camino Emprendido

Article first featured in August edition of Michel Mag

1994 Copa Libertadores final

The barrio of Liniers, located in the west of Buenos Aires, is, for all intents and purposes, a fairly ordinary lower-middle class neighbourhood.  Bordered on one side by the Avenida General Paz – the chaotic ring road that effectively demarcates the autonomous city from the Provincia – it clings to the edge of the capital’s inner core, seemingly a world away from the hustle and bustle of the microcentro, a far cry from the colourful conventillos of La Boca, the street tango in San Telmo or the eternal nightlife of Palermo usually associated with the Paris of the South.

Aside from Liniers’ importance as a transport hub and its large Bolivian community, known locally as ‘Pequeña Bolivia’, the barrio’s principal claim to fame comes from its local football team: Club Atletico Velez Sarsfield.  And thanks to Velez, the residents of Liniers have had plenty to shout about in recent years.

Under the stewardship of Ricardo Gareca, Velez have enjoyed a highly successful five-year period, winning three championships and featuring regularly in continental competition, as well as being crowned 2012-13 Super Champions.  This recent spate of titles takes them to joint sixth in the all-time list of Argentinian league winners along with the now defunct Alumni Athletic Club whose ten league triumphs all came in the amateur era at the start of the 20th century.  Only the traditional ‘Cinco Grandes’ can boast more domestic silverware.

Given their recent achievements, there is, therefore, an argument for Velez to be considered the sixth ‘grande’. Historically, however, the likes of Estudiantes can point to more continental success while Huracan can count on a bigger fanbase, the same of which can be said for provincial powerhouses such as Newell’s, Central and even Talleres.  Indeed, a perceived lack of support is an oft-used barb aimed at Velez by their rivals.

What’s more, though Velez may have only spent three seasons outside of the top flight in the professional era, they had to wait until 1968 to win their first title before promptly experiencing another 25-year trophy drought.  It was only with the advent of the 1990s that would see Velez finally rise to prominence and mark a golden era of unparalleled success in the club’s history, the pinnacle of which would see them win some of the most coveted trophies in world football.

Velez Hinchada

The decade began in auspicious fashion, hinting at the budding potential simmering under the surface at Velez.  Third place in the 1990 Apertura was followed by finishing fourth in the ‘91 Apertura and then runners up a year later.  But it was to be an appointment,  at the tail end of 1992, which would prove to be the catalyst for their success.

Carlos Bianchi, then an untested rookie, was given his first managerial role ahead of the 1993 Clausura.  A fan favourite, the former striker had significantly been a member of squad that had won Velez’s sole title back in 1968 before enjoying a prolific spell in France with Reims and PSG.  This strong bond forged to his boyhood club would go on to have a major impact on the identity of the club, as well as heavily influencing a number of players, some of whom would, like Bianchi, also later return to make telling contributions to the club.

Bianchi’s impact was immediate.  Velez secured the Clausura title in the penultimate game of the season in a 1-1 draw with Estudiantes, with Paraguayan goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert scoring his first of many goals for the club.  Bianchi, after 25 years, had brought the title back to Liniers.  This was just the start.

Thanks to their league win, Velez qualified for the Copa Libertadores for only the second time in their history and were drawn in a tough group containing Boca Juniors and Brazilians Palmeiras and Cruzeiro.  Bianchi’s men weren’t given much hope in qualifying let alone going on a decent run.

Velez began with a 1-1 draw against Boca in the Estadio Jose Amalfitani, Jose Flores cancelling out Carlos Mac Allister’s opener with an opportunistic lob over a stranded Navarro Montoya.  This was followed by another 1-1 creditable draw away against Cruzeiro, Velez once again coming from behind, this time Omar Asad rounding the keeper to equalise after a certain 17-year-old Ronaldo had given a Raposa a first minute lead.

In the third fixture, Velez welcomed Palmeiras to Liniers in what would prove to be the game that truly kick started their campaign. The free-scoring Brazilians had put six past Boca in the previous game but Velez managed to neutralise the Alviverde’s attacking threat and once again it was Asad – nicknamed el Turco (The Turk) for his Arabic heritage despite actually being of Lebanese/Syrian ethnicity – who proved to be the difference, giving el Fortin a precious 1-0 victory.

Victories away to Boca (2-1 with goals from Asad and Jose Basualdo) and at home to Cruzeiro (2-0 Roberto Trotta and Asad again) secured Velez’s passage to the knock out stages.  Despite a 4-1 loss away to Palmeiras in the final group game, Bianchi’s men finished top with three victories, two draws and one loss. The dream was still well and truly alive.

Entering the knockout stages of the tournament, Velez were pitted against Defensor Sporting of Uruguay in the round of 16.  A 1-1 draw in first game and 0-0 in the return leg meant that, with no away goal rule, the game went to penalties – the first instance of what would be an important feature of their tournament. With the inspirational and imposing Chilavert making two saves and scoring one himself, Velez won 4-3 and progressed to the quarter-finals.

Following an enforced break for the 1994 World Cup that summer, the Libertadores resumed at the quarter-final stage in late July.  The opposition would be Venezuelan upstarts Minerven – the club has since gone out of business – and Velez managed to negotiate a trip to Puerto Ordaz and claim a respectable 0-0 draw.  Back on home soil, goals from young strike duo Flores and Asad gave Velez an expected victory to take them into the semi-finals.

The opposition was to be Colombian champions Junior, whose team boasted a number of internationals such as Ivan Valenciano and ‘el Pibe’ Carlos Valderrama desperate to make up for their disappointing showing for the national team that summer.  In the sweltering first leg in Barranquilla, Velez suffered only their second defeat of the competition as Valenciano lived up to his nickname, el Gordito de Oro, and netted twice.  Turu Flores reduced the deficit but the Fortineros would face an uphill battle in the return leg. Only a victory would suffice.

A week later back at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani, Velez responded perfectly, racing into a two goal lead with a header from Chrisitan Bassedas and a close range effort from Flores.  However, once again Valenciano struck, tying the score 3-3 on aggregate and taking the game to penalties. Both sides expertly despatched their first four penalties each and up stepped Flores for the crucial fifth spot kick. Jose Maria Pazo flew to his right and kept it out, leaving Velez hanging by a lifeline. But with Chilavert between the posts there was always a chance and so it proved as he saved Hector Mendez’s tame effort.  Basualdo converted and then Ronald Valderrama crashed his again the post and Velez were through to the final in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Now it all came down to the final – also a two-legged affair – in which Velez would have to overcome Tele Santana’s reigning champions Sao Paulo, who were looking to complete a hat trick of consecutive Libertadores wins.  Their formidable squad contained three World Cup winners in Zetti, Cafu and Muller and o Tricolor were understandably huge favourites.  Not that this phased Velez of course.  Omar Asad’s sixth goal of the competition and a perfect defensive display gave el Fortin a 1-0 win in Liniers and a slender advantage going into the second, decisive leg.

In front of around 100,000 fans in the Morumbi, Velez faced the biggest game in their history, needing only to avoid defeat to be sure of a first Libertadores win. However, a Muller penalty after 33 minutes gave Sao Paulo a 1-0 lead and meant that the sides were dead level.  Raul Cardozo was sent off but some heroic, backs-to-the-wall defending ensured that the 10 men of Velez hung on to force the game, with the aggregate score at one apiece, to penalties for the third time in the competition.

Velez captain Roberto Trotta was the first to step up; the defender unerringly fired the ball into the bottom left corner and the pressure was passed to the Brazilians.  The burden proved too much for Palhinha as his weak effort was comfortably saved by Chilavert.  Advantage Velez. Then Chilavert, going second as usual, buried his penalty to strike another psychological blow against Santana’s charges.  Sao Paulo responded with Andre Luiz, Muller and Euller all converting but Velez matched them step for step with Zandona and Almandoz making it four from four and maintaining their one goal advantage.  And in emphatic fashion substitute Roberto Pompei thumped Velez’s fifth in off the underside of the bar to ensure an improbable first Libertadores victory for Velez.  In a stunned Morumbi, the players and coaching staff celebrated wildly with the travelling band of supporters.  Chilavert – the difference again – was mobbed by journalists, while Trotta slumped to his knees, overcome by emotion, weeping into the Argentinian flag.

In just 18 months Bianchi had brought Velez their second league title and first Libertadores.  In much the same style as their league triumph, their success was based in a solid defence and a clinical ability to take their chances – hallmarks of Bianchi’s teams later at Boca too – as well as the penalty heroics of Chilavert and goals of Asad and Flores.  They may have done it the hard way but nevertheless Velez had brought the biggest prize in South American football back home to Liniers.

That wasn’t to be the end of their landmark year as the Intercontinental Cup in Japan still beckoned.  If Velez were second favourites against Sao Paulo, then it would be a gross understatement to suggest the Argentinian underdogs had much of a chance against Champions League winners AC Milan.  The Italians, though not quite at their Arrigo Sacchi pomp, had secured their 5th European title in consummate fashion after Fabio Capello’s men had dismantled Barcelona 4-0 in the final earlier in the year.   A star-studded line-up included the likes of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Marcel Desailly, Zvonimir Boban, Dejan Savicevic and Daniele Massaro.  Velez, fittingly hailing from Italian roots themselves, would have to be at their very best once again.

But that’s exactly what they did, executing their game plan to perfection to claim yet another prestigious scalp.  The deadlock was broken five minutes into the second half as Chilavert pinged a raking 70m cross field diagonal to Basualdo on the right wing, who cut inside on his left and centred the ball to Omar Asad.  The striker was wrestled to the ground by Costacurta and the penalty was awarded.  Trotta, just as he had in the Libertadores final, found the back of the net, albeit with a slice of fortune as the ball found a way through Sebastiano Rossi’s sprawling legs.

Velez then did the unthinkable and doubled their advantage seven minutes later.  Costacurta, still reeling from giving the penalty away, sent a lazy, undercooked backpass towards Rossi but Asad reacted quickest to nip in and get to the ball. Running away from goal, Asad still had plenty to do but somehow in one movement managed to swivel and hook the ball into the net from an acute angle.  Costacurta’s miserable evening was compounded as he received his marching orders in the 85th minute and Velez saw out the game to add another improbable title to their growing list of silverware.

Velez would go on to win the 1995 Apertura, 1996 Clausura and 1996 Copa Interamericana under ‘Virrey’ Bianchi and then a fifth domestic title in the 1998 Clausura under Marcelo Bielsa in what would go down as the most successful decade in the club’s history.  But it is 1994 that will be forever remembered as the crowning glory in those apogeic days of pioneering triumph.

20 years on, the relevancy of that year still resonates today as Velez’s recent success has been overseen by sporting director Christian Bassedas and now former manager Ricardo Gareca, both of whom played under Bianchi during his spell at Velez.  Commitment to youth development – seven of the Libertadores & Intercontinental winning squad were academy products – has remained a key aspect of Velez’s identity and the club has ensured continuity with Turu Flores (another Bianchi graduate) now in the managers dugout after cutting his teeth as Tigre Gareca’s assistant.

No-one could have predicted quite how important the path undertaken by Bianchi & co. would be all those years ago but, two decades on from their biggest achievement, its significance remains as pertinent as ever.

Article first featured in Michel Mag