Atlético Tucumán and the Copa Libertadores Adventure

Atlético Tucumán and the Copa Libertadores Adventure

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Nicolas Miremont –

Atlético Tucumán are living the sweetest of dreams. After a remarkable campaign during the 2016 Transition tournament, Atlético Tucumán earned a historical spot in the play-off round of the CONMEBOL Libertadores for the first time in their history.

Yesterday, after having drawn 2-2 at home against the Ecuadorian side, El Nacional, the previous week, the Decano’s heart-rate began to increase as they approached the second most important match in the club’s existence. The first one had taken place only a couple of days before, in Tucumán. This one ended up being one of the most bizarre yet thrilling matches in the history of the Copa.

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Atlético Tucumán’s squad was delayed for three hours at the airport in Guayaquil before the start of the match. Against all odds, they arrived in Quito an hour late, escorted by Ecuador’s military police, and borrowed the kits and boots of the under-20 National Team who, as luck would have it, were in the city waiting for their next Sudamericano U-20 match.

Carrying this mixture of fear, adrenaline, and excitement, the team took to the pitch wearing the colors and numbers of their national team counterparts and, amazingly, won the match.

Atlético Tucumán – Madness in Quito

A week ago, both Atlético Tucumán and El Nacional had been the protagonists of El Decano’s first international match, which was, of course, a celebration. Almost 35,000 fans turned up at the Estadio José Fierro to see their beloved club embark upon an unprecedented journey.

Atlético’s first international goal took less than a minute to happen, after a splendid free-kick taken by the legend who is often referred to as ‘La Pulga’—that is correct, I am talking about Luis Rodríguez, la pulguita. El Decano took the lead twice, nevertheless defensive mistakes and a once-in-a-lifetime performance by El Nacional’s goalkeeper in the dying moment of the game managed to keep the Ecuadorians alive and with two away goals upon the second leg at home. It was one of those draws that felt like a defeat for the Argentine fan base. The five following days were set to be the longest of their lives.

Argentina's Atlético Tucumán players celebrate their victory over Ecuadorean El Nacional in their 2017 Copa Libertadores football match at Olimpico Atahualpa stadium in Quito, Ecuador, on February 7, 2017. / AFP / JUAN CEVALLOS (Photo credit should read JUAN CEVALLOS/AFP/Getty Images)

Atlético Tucumán players had to wear the shirts of Argentine’s U-20 team. (JUAN CEVALLOS/AFP/Getty Images)

It was Tuesday and the moment had finally arrived, but one team was not there yet. Strange, to say the least. Internet, however, proved once again to be the least expendable human invention as it allowed the world (literally) to keep track of what was going on.

According to the Decano’s authorities, the team had booked their flight by DAP, a prestigious private Chilean airline, and left Tucumán three days before the beginning of the event. Although a very specific CONMEBOL rule (yes, it has rules) requires the teams to be in the city 24 hours before kickoff, this is a strategy used by many teams in order avoid the effects of altitude in their athletes.

The strategy can fail, of course. The maneuver backfired because the plane was stopped due to a missing piece of paperwork as it was about to leave Guayaquil. Atlético’s manager, Pablo Lavallén, seemed quite upset. Rather than criticizing the safety measure, he was skeptical about its cause, implying several times after the match that it could have been a strategy set up by El Nacional. That would certainly take the magic of the Copa to a whole new level, really.

After three hours, the squad bought 36 new tickets on a regular flight and got on the plane, leaving several fans, with whom the team were supposed to share the trip, at the airport, clearly prioritizing the arrival of the players. The day after the match, the airline stated an apology, and made clear that “all the paperwork was in order, as well as the flight plan”. The Ecuadorian air control disagree. Only time will tell—or not. In CONMEBOL world, the clarification may never come.

In the meantime, at the stadium, things were starting to get out of hand, until El Nacional decided to follow CONMEBOL’s protocol—to wait for a maximum of 45 minutes for their rivals to arrive. Fox Sports decided to synchronize the stress by displaying a green countdown timer on screen.

With time running out, the Argentine ambassador in Ecuador lived the most intense night of his life as he joined the squad at the airport and proceeded to speak on live television, begging to be put into contact with El Nacional’s authorities and asking for patience: “Please tell them to wait, we are on our way. Oh STOP f***ing around, they were treated well in Tucumán! The driver is going at 130 km/h! It is only a couple of more minutes”. I should remind you that this was broadcasted on live television to the entire continent on a Tuesday evening. Quality stuff.

As soon as they got to the stadium, the team found out that their uniforms were not there. In fact, they were flying through the Ecuadorian night-sky on a different flight. Luckily, the Sudamericano U-20 (a recent topic in the WFI – South American Football Show Podcast) is currently taking place in Ecuador, and Atlético borrowed the national team’s jerseys (which are identical in color to Tucumán’s kits) and the boots of the young lads. According to the ambassador, those boots were like baby shoes for the Atlético squad.

Wearing other people’s clothes and with their numbers and names changed, El Decano played the match with unusual authority due to the passive attitude of the Ecuadorians, who were still scratching their heads wondering how on earth those people in front of them had made it. After a very poor display, it is fair to say that El Nacional inexplicably lost the match 1-0, with Zampedri scoring a beautiful header for the Tucus. It was the first time we got to see someone score an important goal while wearing number 9 on a national team jersey. Next, in the third and last of the play-offs, Atlético Tucumán will next be facing the difficult Junior from Barranquilla, Colombia.

Under other circumstances, this game would not have been played. However, when it comes to football, releasing a crowd of locals and foreigners into your city having previously suspended their match is not a wise idea. When everyone thought El Nacional’s patience had reached its limit, something made them change their minds. Empathy, perhaps?

Nah, CONMEBOL picked up their big red phone directly connected to anyone who might cause them trouble and technically forced the Ecuadorians to play the match, regardless of how much time they had to wait for the people who would end up beating them. After the match, El Nacional’s President confessed: “The decision was taken in Paraguay (CONMEBOL HQ), we only had to agree”.

According to the rules, the aforementioned 45 minutes begin after the referee summons both captains in the centre of the pitch. Seems legit. This is why, despite having played “under protest”, El Nacional will not be able to make a complaint about the scandalous delay. What is to be expected, however, is Atlético Tucumán being fined for the mess.

Pablo Lavallén spoke to the press while still on the pitch after almost fighting some El Nacional players. Throwing a crazy look at the reporter, pointing a finger to the sky and clearly convinced of an existing conspiracy against his team, he stated “They tried to stop us and look. There you have it! God…he is fair”. Just a regular Copa Libertadores night.

 

Atlético Tucumán and the magic of the Copa

We all know how the Copa Libertadores is (if you don’t, Independiente del Valle’s previous campaign sums it up). There is something special about it. Most of the time it might not seem like it, but a logical argument behind the claims of those who rate the Libertadores considerably higher than the Champions League exists. It can be difficult to elaborate, though.

América’s biggest competition is mostly about the communities themselves. The cosmopolitan glamour of European capitals has no place here, where every major city (or remote town) where you have to play will certainly surprise you in a different way. Every club’s identity can be appreciated at first glance. Mainstream football, on the other hand, focuses more on budgets, record signings, sponsors and such affairs.

The vast continent plays its part as well. Long distances and different levels of development lead to the lack of a generic quality standard which can be encountered at any Champions League match from Manchester to Tel-Aviv. We are still, on matters pertaining to football, the land of improvisation. Here, there are no tourists attending a Universitario de Sucre versus Montevideo Wanderers match. Instead, you might be lucky enough to share the stand with a friendly local dog. Not even joking here.

 

 

Far from being a dreadful advertisement for the Libertadores, these paragraphs try to explain a reality which seems impossible in certain parts of the world. Being a debutant in this competition means having to get used to tons of logistics preparations, timing and many other issues usually not related to football at all.

Atlético Tucumán’s tightly planned schedule yesterday could have cost them their most important match. However, this kind of speculation is a constant in every single Libertadores edition, for the effects of height can be catastrophic for a squad that normally plays at sea level.

There are many factors that need to be taken into account when facing such challenge. You will never see Cristiano Ronaldo taking Viagra pills in order to counter the effects of the Bolivian altitude, having to take a freezing shower after the hot water supply in his dressing room mysteriously stops, or having trouble getting to sleep due to his future rivals’ firework show in his hotel driveway. That is what makes it different from any other competition. Technically, it may not be better than the Champions League, but it certainly is more challenging.

Even though the grass may not be present along the entire extension of the pitch, that is where the mystical part of the Libertadores lies. It is neither a globalised sports competition, nor a family activity. It is a cultural event of gigantic proportions which, despite suffering the odd power cut every now and then, is proud of those stories, like that of Atlético Tucumán, which can be called upon Its priority resides in highlighting and embracing the diversity and character of the American continent.

Atlético Tucumán – exemplary management and chances

Atlético Tucumán’s feat began three years ago, when their president Mario Leito announced Juan “El Vasco” Azconzábal as their new manager. After what is remembered as the worst season in the club’s history, in which the the Decano failed to clinch a promotion spot to Primera out of the ten available (read about the 30 team format here), the club decided to stick with the manager on whom they had previously put their hopes. A wise decision, indeed.

The year 2015 was when they became champions of the B Nacional, and earned direct promotion. Here is where the Vasco’s work shines the most. In that season, the 30 teams were split into two zones. After beating teams like Boca Juniors and Racing Club, Atlético finished 3rd in its zone, and 5th in the general table.

After the Mexican teams pulled out of the CONMEBOL Libertadores, El Decano was given the right to participate ahead of the Uruguayan Clausura champions Plaza Colonia in October of 2016. This decision upset the Uruguayan fans and their federation, however Atlético seemed more entitled in the eyes of CONMEBOL. Azconzábal’s attacking football had given Atlético not only the right to remain in the First Division, but also the right to participate in the Libertadores.

His 4-3-3, sometimes 4-1-4-1, was a complete surprise coming from a promoted team. Signing Fernando Zampedri as their main striker was vital for strengthening the frontline prior to their crusade into the first division. Moreover, having a local legend like the Pulga Rodríguez in your squad is always beneficial, especially when joined by the speed of Cristian Menéndez and the experience of Leandro González.

Those are four players you will definitely have to follow from now on. Azconzábal’s stir in front of the squad really pushed their attacking capacities to the limit, winning 68% of the points disputed during their first season in the Primera División. Now in Huracán, after being seduced by a tempting empty seat, “the Vasco” will always be remembered as one of the best managers in the history of the club.

Back in Tucumán, Pablo Lavallén’s cycle continues. Taking on an already formed squad and making them play continental football under your game plan is never an easy thing to achieve. Nevertheless, the new manager has succeeded in exploiting the team’s attacking potential, while also reinforcing the defense, which now seems stronger and more confident than ever.

Even though they might not beat Junior, Atlético Tucumán’s progress needs to be pointed out. It is the clubs like them, next to the likes of River and Lanús, who show the best side of Argentine football to the world.

Small province, big spirit

Tucumán is the smallest of the 23 provinces that make up the Argentine nation. Apart from having been directly involved in some of the most defining moments in our history (which, of course, involved conflicts), the Republic’s backyard has always been known for its highly developed society and a major source of Argentine exports.

In spite of the above contributions, Tucumán’s football culture has never experienced true success—especially with a strong affinity for rugby that coexists with the round shaped ball fanbase. However, this does not mean that football is scarce by any means. After all, Atlético Tucumán are nicknamed “El Decano” because they were the first club founded in the province and the first one ever to exist in the Argentine north-western region back in 1902. This was three years before the idea of founding a football club in La Boca, for instance, came to anyone’s mind.

In a league dominated by Buenos Aires’ hegemony, where teams that were once considered classics fell into oblivion never to return, the history of Tucumán’s two biggest clubs should be recognised.

For such a small piece of land with little world-class sports development or facilities, Tucumán has already provided the world with its fair share of footballing talent. As I mentioned before, Tucumán only exports the best it can produce, no matter how small the quantity.

Fernando Zampedri (R) of Argentinian Atletico Tucuman celebrates his goal against Ecuadorean El Nacional during a Copa Libertadores football match in San Miguel de Tucuman, Argentina on January 31, 2017. / AFP / Walter Monteros (Photo credit should read WALTER MONTEROS/AFP/Getty Images)

Fernando Zampedri (R) of Argentinian Atlético Tucumán celebrates his goal against Ecuadorean El Nacional. (WALTER MONTEROS/AFP/Getty Images)

You may not have noticed, but you were probably shown two Tucumán-born players on your screen last season during the UEFA Champions League. Matías Kranevitter (Sevilla) and Roberto Pereyra (Juventus, now Watford), both from Tucumán, faced some of the best football super-powers on the planet in 2016. Moreover, Sevilla signed yet another Tucumán wonderkid last season: Joaquín “Tucu” Correa.

Regardless of next week’s result against Junior, Atlético Tucumán may now add another feat to its long list of achievements, right next to hosting the declaration of independence, producing Argentina’s finest sugar, and being the world’s top lemon producer. The year 2017 will go into the books as the year when the Decano made the people of the province feel bigger than anyone else, by making the most of their first two-legged appearance on the international stage—and in such style! Congratulations.

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Nicolás Miremont is a born and raised Boca Juniors fan, but his heart has a special place for Manchester United, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Kiev. Miremont loves to support the underdogs. Miremont enjoys watching smaller competitions especially those from Eastern Europe, but also his native Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @Miremont_Nico

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