Home town heroes: Atletico Mineiro v Olimpia, Copa Libertadores final second-leg preview

James Young
ronaldinho 300x225 Home town heroes: Atletico Mineiro v Olimpia, Copa Libertadores final second leg preview

Ronaldinho pictured in action during the first leg

Tonight, finally, the few hundred Atlético Mineiro supporters who spent over a week camped on the pavement in the queue for tickets for the Libertadores final second leg against Olimpia will find out if the cricked backs and chilled bones were worth it. Seeking to overturn last week’s painful 2-0 defeat in Asunción, they and 60,000 other Galo fans will attempt to coax their weary side into one more dramatic last stand in a campaign that has been full of them.

They can be forgiven their giddiness. This, after all, is Galo´s first ever Libertadores final, whereas Olimpia has lifted the trophy three times already, in 1979, 1990 and 2002. Yet going into last week’s game many considered the Paraguayan team to be the underdog, mostly due to the financial balance of power (both footballing and otherwise) between Brazil and its much smaller neighbour. While Olimpia players recently went nine months without being paid, Atlético boasts a monthly wage bill of over R$4 (£1.2) million. Ronaldinho’s wage packet alone would pay that of almost the entire Olimpia squad.

But money and celebrity counted for little at an ear-crackingly loud Defensores del Chaco stadium in the first leg. As they have been in away ties throughout the knockout stages, the Atlético players were nervy and unsure, unable or unwilling to risk their usual attacking style, not smart or organised enough to hold possession or mount a successful rear-guard action. Olimpia scored in the first half through zagueiro Alejandro Silva, then very, very late on, from Pittoni´s free kick. And it could easily have been more.

A tough task lies ahead for Atlético, then, but not an impossible one, for at times this year there has been a real sense of destiny about the club. South America swooned as the team swashbuckled its way through the group phase, scoring 16 goals in six games. Early on in the campaign, local paper Estado de Minas caught the mood perfectly, tagging rumoured Arsenal target Bernard as D’Artagnan, Jô as Porthos, Diego Tardelli as Aramis, and Ronaldinho as Athos, after Arsenal de Sarandi were thrashed 5-2 in Argentina.

Once the swarthier swordsmen of the knockout stages rolled into view, however, the Atlético rapiers seemed to lose their sheen. It was time for a new hero to take centre stage. After a 2-2 draw was salvaged against enterprising newcomers Tijuana in Baja California, several million Galo fans held their collective breath when, with the second leg tied at 1-1, the visitors won a potentially fatal injury-time penalty. But recently deified goalkeeper Victor saved the kick spectacularly, and Atlético scraped through.

Atlético will hope for more such Belo Horizonto miracles tonight. Throughout the tournament the club´s cramped, intimidating Independência home (where the team has not lost in 38 games) has been the life raft that has saved Galo from the choppy seas of many a nervy away performance. As the song goes, “Caiu No Horto, Tá Morto” – “If you come to Horto (the neighbourhood where the stadium is located), you’re dead.”

But Conmebol (South American football´s governing body) regulations require that stadiums for the final have a capacity of at least 40,000, meaning that despite lengthy protests by Atlético´s decidedly unshy and retiring president Alexandre Kalil, tonight´s game will be at the Mineirão; state owned, but the current home of city rivals Cruzeiro (while Galo also traditionally plays at the bigger ground, the club has not returned following the stadium´s World Cup facelift, arguing that the financial terms on offer are prohibitive).

Atletico Mineiro 300x225 Home town heroes: Atletico Mineiro v Olimpia, Copa Libertadores final second leg preview

Reported Arsenal target Bernard will be in action for Atletico Mineiro

Throughout the dispute, of course, those hardy Atlético fans shivered in their pavement tents, unable to buy tickets until the matter was resolved. Supporters´ rights are not much considered at footballing high tables in South America.

Though to be fair to Kalil, more elemental assistance than the reassurance provided by the Independência’s cosy confines may have been at stake. Late in the semi-final second leg against Newell’s Old Boys at the stadium, Atlético were winning 1-0, but, still needing a second goal to force penalties, looked short of ideas. Suddenly, mysteriously, half of the floodlights went out, giving the home side enough time for a touchline motivational pick-me-up. Galo returned invigorated, substitute Guilherme smacked in the vital second goal at the death, and a Victor inspired penalty shoot-out win almost inevitably followed. “It was the fusebox of God,” someone surely should have quipped.

Such mishaps/shenanigans (again, delete according to taste) can feel like par for the course in the Libertadores, so often a mix of off-field chaos and footballing marvels. This year’s competition was no exception. Away from the play, there was tragedy in the shape of young Bolivian fan Kevin Espada, killed by a naval flare fired by a Corinthians fan during a game in Oruru, as well as numerous cases of ill-discipline amongst teams, coaches and fans, such as the on-pitch melee after Huachipato vs. Grêmio, when Brazilian coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo tussled with opposing players, the generalised hooliganism that scarred Peñarol vs. Vélez Sarsfield, and the alarming sight of obstreperous Arsenal de Sarandi players having police guns pointed at them on the pitch in Belo Horizonte.

There was even trouble during last week´s game in Asunción, as several fist-sized lumps of concrete were chucked alarmingly close to Ronaldinho (“it´s a tradition in Paraguay,” harrumphed one jingoistic Brazilian commentator, conjuring up troubling images of just what kind of parlour games are played at birthday and Christmas celebrations in the Chaco). As usual, the problems have generally been met with studied indifference by the slovenly Conmebol.

It is hoped, then, that Atlético and Olimpia will provide a final to be remembered tonight. The result will depend on a number of questions, such as how Atlético´s likeable but glass-jawed coach Cuca fares against his wilier, more experienced counterpart Ever Almeida, how well the home team contains dangerous Olimpia strike pair Fredy Bareiro and Uruguayan Juan Manuel Salgueiro whilst doing most of the attacking themselves, and whether Ronaldinho, whose star has faded in recent weeks, particularly away from home (he was unhappily substituted midway through the second half in Asunción), can pull a few last rabbits from the hat. And, of course, how much of that indomitable Independência spirit the Atlético fans can recreate at the Mineirão.

James Young writes about Brazilian football for Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about “love, death and football” in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.

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