COMMENT By Marcus Haydon
On Wednesday, Argentina’s River Plate will face Mexico’s Tigres in the first leg of the final of South America’s premier club competition, the Copa Libertadores. For Tigres, it’s their first appearance at this stage of the competition and makes them only the third Mexican side to have ever reached the final. River, though, have won the tournament twice before, but they have experienced a great deal of ups and downs since their most recent triumph 19 years ago.
The squad that won that last Libertadores title in 1996 is considered one of River’s most cherished of all time. Led by the veteran Uruguayan Enzo Francescoli, then aged 35, it also featured the prodigious young talents of Hernan Crespo, Matias Almeyda and Ariel Ortega, a trio who went on to earn the best part of 200 international caps for Argentina.
Despite the youthful complexion of the side, they gave a series of mature performances before winning the tournament on a special night at El Monumental, an occasion that Almeyda still describes as his best moment in football.
That success saw Crespo, Almeyda and defender Juan Gomez poached by clubs in Europe, but fortunately for River, the late 1990s and early 2000s represented a fertile period for its academy, as well as a time of successful recruitment.
The sale of Crespo to Parma, for example, was softened by the arrival of Marcelo Salas, a promising striker from Chile. The loss of Ortega to Valencia was offset by the development of a young Marcelo Gallardo, the current River coach, who watched the 1996 final from the bench. The club continued to be successful, winning three consecutive domestic titles and reaching Libertadores semi-finals in both 1998 and 1999.
Players continued to move on, but yet more homemade talent found its way into the first team, with the likes of Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola coming to the fore. Two more domestic titles followed, but the club failed to live up to their billing on the international stage, losing their two young stars to Europe after being beaten by Cruz Azul in the Libertadores quarter-finals of 2001. Once again they filled the talent void. First came Andres D’Alessandro and Fernando Cavenaghi, then Javier Mascherano and Lucho Gonzalez, and then Gonzalo Higuain.
But when the stream of talent began to dry up, River slipped from their perch at the top of Argentine football and into an institutional crisis. After winning the 2008 Clausura under Diego Simeone, they finished the next championship in last position.
That was followed by mediocre performances over the next two years and, with Argentina’s relegation system based on a three-year points average, they were relegated for their first time in their history in 2011 following a play-off defeat to Belgrano. In a cruel twist of fate, their demotion arrived exactly 15 years to the day after the iconic Libertadores success in 1996.
Despite the huge shock caused by their relegation, the club bounced back admirably by winning promotion at the first attempt. On their return to the Primera they were immediately back among the leading contenders, but were mocked mercilessly from all sides by chants and banners, often making use of the adjusted spelling of ‘River’ to ‘RiBer’, a reference to their time in Nacional B, the Argentine second tier. However, within two years of their return, they were champions again under Ramon Diaz, the man who had led the club to the 1996 Libertadores triumph.
Current coach Marcelo Gallardo took over from Diaz just over a year ago and has built on his predecessor’s success, leading River to the Copa Sudamericana, the Recopa Sudamericana and to this year’s Libertadores final. But this is a different River from the past, less focused on the cult of the individual and much more on the Gallardo’s collective project.
They’ve had their ups and downs during the course of this year’s Libertadores tournament, almost going out in the group phase, but this is a squad and a club that has overcome greater hurdles in recent years and they come into the final in good form.
"My objective was to take River to the top and I believe we have achieved that,” said Diaz when he left the club last year. “When I arrived at this club only relegation was spoken about and now it makes me very happy that River are leading at the highest level.”
There’s no doubt that Diaz helped rebuild confidence at River and start to write a new chapter for the club. However, should they lift the Copa Libertadores on August 5, there are few who can question that this iconic club will have achieved an even more emphatic emancipation, just four years after the lowest moment in their history.