By Rupert Fryer
Atletico Mineiro sank to their knees for the first time that evening. With the scores level after full-time and penalties well under way, it was time for their talisman to take centre stage. For their leader to lead. Kowtowed in a line, arms slung affectionately around one another’s shoulders, the collective looked to their individual.
Ronaldinho stood poised, feet in perfect alignment with the pair of shoulders which at that moment carried the weight of a family ahead of his side's fifth spot kick. He took a deep breath, three side-steps and strode up to the ball, dispatching his penalty calmly into the back of the net, sending Newell's Old Boys' goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman sprawling in the opposite direction.
Turning to his adoring public behind the goal, he calmly took a bow. From there, it was destined to be Atletico's night. Sure enough, Maxi Rodriguez then saw Victor palm his penalty away and the Rooster had booked their place in the Copa Libertadores final.
"I feel like a child [again]," beamed the former Barcelona man from that trademark smile of his. "I can’t explain how happy I am.
"This is what motivates me to play," he continued. "To keep winning titles that I haven't yet won."
That is the prospect that lies ahead for the 33-year-old when he travels to Paraguay to face Olimpia in the first leg of the final on Wednesday. So too does the chance of joining Dida, Cafu, Roque Junior, Walter Samuel and Carlos Tevez on the select list of players to have claimed both the Libertadores and the Champions League (Juan Pablo Sorin is often mentioned, though he left Juventus before they lifted the European crown in 1996).
Misfits is most definitely what they are. Or rather, what they were. Bernard was deemed too small to be a footballer in his formative years; Jo was turfed out of Internacional after prioritising his birthday celebrations over an away game; Guilherme and Diego Tardelli were trying get their careers back on track after returning from disappointing stints in Eastern Europe; Richarlyson was simply hoping to rediscover his love for the game following allegations about his private life that threatened to end his career at Sao Paulo.
Ronaldinho, meanwhile, joined the club as a free agent on a modest salary after an underwhelming spell with Flamengo eventually ended following a contractual dispute.
Head coach Cuca has taken these rough diamonds and polished them into what has become the most entertaining side in all of Brazil, mounting the most unlikely of title challenges. They eventually finished second in 2012, with Fluminense’s ruthless effectiveness proving too much. But Cuca had found something - something upon which he knew he could build.
Bernard has been a revelation since breaking into the side and was named best newcomer for his performances in Brasileirao last season. Tardelli has led his side’s high-intensity approach from the front, tirelessly closing down opponents and charging directly at them when in possession. It was Guilherme’s late strike off the bench that forced a penalty shoot-out with Newell’s and Richarlyson has found a consistency on the left that looked to have deserted him forever.
Ronaldinho, meanwhile, has shown his best form since those hazy days at Camp Nou. Pushed back into the centre as an orthodox No.10, with pace all around him, steel behind and a focal point in Jo perennially facing him in front, Ronaldinho rediscovered his love for the game and that trademark smile which had been notably missing from the game in recent years.
Former Arsenal star Gilberto Silva has since added experience to the centre of defence. Atletico retained the state title in May and surged through the Libertadores with the best record in the group stage before hammering compatriots Sao Paulo and bypassing Tijuana on away goals. They then showed their spirit to recover from a 2-0 first-leg defeat against Newell’s, a feat they hope they won’t have to repeat.
"We now know how difficult it is to reverse a negative score," said Tardelli this week. "There’s no turning back now. We have two games left in which we must sacrifice and play with emotion."
|"I feel like a child again. I can't explain how happy I am."
However, Atletico have now gone 38 games unbeaten at home since their stadium reopened in April 2012 and Conmebol’s refusal to let them host their home leg of the final on July 24 due to its limited capacity, a week after the first leg on July 17, is a real blow.
The Independencia is a place where the Brazilian football’s displaced came together and made a new home. Cuca is the patriarch, the man who brought this unlikely family together, but Ronaldinho is their leader on the field.
When this year’s Copa Libertadores final reaches crunch time, they will look to him; he will look to them. And then, he hopes, as fireworks shoot around the Belo Horizonte skyline, he will take one final bow.
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