By NESTOR F. SEBASTIAN
The Copa Libertadores — without global marketing and SuperBowl-like build-up — has remained one of the more prestigious competitions in the world. Its passion, purity and pressure is what drives all South American-based players to step it up a notch in the intense challenges that the Copa offers.
Brazil legend Pele has acknowledged winning titles with his Santos team almost 50 years ago as one of the highlights of his career. Argentina great Diego Maradona laments the fact that he wasn't able to participate in a campaign for the continent's most sought-after trophy since he was mostly based in Europe during his playing days. Even Ronaldo and Juan Sebastian Veron understood the magnificence of partaking in Libertadores action, as they decided to come home to finish out their respective careers.
In Ricardo Gareca's case, the Libertadores title is not wanted, it's needed. The Velez Sarsfield manager is a calm and collected man, hardly calls anyone out in the press and is very humble when being honored by other managers or players. It'd be difficult to know exactly what runs through his mind on the prospect of this year's semifinal tie against Uruguay giants Penarol, with whom he shares a pretty unique bond.
El Tigre will casually talk about how his playing days, when his Colombian side America de Cali side lost three straight Libertadores finals in the mid 1980s, including a last-second loss to the Penarol in 1987.
He'll reminisce about leaving Velez a year before they won their only Libertadores title in order to move to another Argentine giant, Independiente, before retiring. Or he'll joke that a curse was placed on him by Boca Juniors fans after he earned their eternal hatred when he joined archrivals River Plate for one season after several years at the famed Bombonera.
But there may be a slight pause when asked about Thursday's opponent, specifically its manager, Diego Aguirre. It's nothing personal and, true to his character, he'll likely praise his Uruguayan counterpart, while at the same time downplaying the Argentina-Uruguay rivalry; however, it'll be hard not to adjust himself at the memory of Aguirre.
Because it was Aguirre who was the Penarol player that knocked in the game-winning goal in the 120th minute that sealed Gareca's and America de Cali's fate during that classic 1987 final. Gareca could only watch helplessly on the bench, as he had been subbed off earlier in the match.
Now, 24 years later, both managers face off again, but this time from the sidelines as their respective sides look to clinch a spot in the 2011 final. It's appropriate that these two sides meet for the first time, because both squads represent the historic ingredients that have made Libertadores matches a phenomenon in South America, with agony, ecstacy and frenzy surrounding supporters and players throughout the years. Thursday night at Centenario Stadium in Montevideo, Uruguay, will not only be special for Gareca and Aguirre and Uruguayan and Argentine fans but for all Libertadores fans around the world.