Ronaldinho Completes Trophy Sweep With Copa LibertadoresTariq Panja
Ronaldinho, Brazil’s two-time former world player of the year, yesterday added the Copa Libertadores to his trophy haul after Atletico Mineiro claimed South America’s top club soccer title for the first time with a 4-3 penalty shootout win over Paraguay’s Olimpia.
Atletico was trailing 2-0 from last week’s first game going into last night’s match at Belo Horizonte’s Mineiro Stadium, where it received fanatical support. The Brazilian team tied the two-match series when Leonardo Silva scored with a header with just two minutes of regulation time left. Extra time ended without score and the hosts secured the title when Olimpia’s Matias Gimenez struck the post with his penalty.
The title is the first for Ronaldinho since he returned to play soccer in his home country in 2011. During 10 seasons in Europe the 33-year-old, a World Cup winner in 2002, established himself as one of soccer’s best-known players, winning league titles with AC Milan and Barcelona, the Spanish team with whom he also claimed the 2006 Champions League.
“I have no words to describe Ronaldinho,” Atletico forward Bernard said in an interview after the game. “He deserves everything that’s come his way.”
The South American championship title, Atletico’s first major trophy since 1971, caps a turnaround for Ronaldinho, who had endured a difficult return to Brazil with Flamengo. His stay there ended after just 15 months following a wage dispute and in May he was left off the national team roster for the Confederations Cup, a World Cup warm-up event that Brazil won last month.
He’s proven a hit with fans and teammates at Atletico after winning the award for the best player in the 2012 Brazilian league. The Libertadores victory makes him only the fourth player to claim the top continental titles in Europe and South America as well as the World Cup.
“He’s always trying to help everyone, he’s always smiling and happy, and God is blessing him with the things he deserves,” said Bernard, who may have played his last game for the team. The winger has been linked with a number of clubs, including Arsenal and Tottenham of England’s Premier League.
Atletico’s comeback last night was in keeping with its performances in the Copa Libertadores, Latin America’s equivalent of the Champions League. It fought back after losing 2-0 in the first game of the semifinal against Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys before winning the match on penalty kicks. Before that goalkeeper Victor’s injury-time penalty-save prevented elimination to Mexico’s Tijuana in the quarterfinals. The stirring comebacks led fans and media to coin the slogan “Yes we CAM,’ a play on the team’s initials.
Qualification for the final led to a frenzied demand for tickets, with some fans camping outside ticket booths following the victory over Newell’s on June 10. Fireworks were set off throughout the day in anticipation of the game, and some supporters even spent the night before the game making noise outside the Olimpia team hotel. Tickets cost as much as 500 reais ($222.60), about five times the price of a regular league game. The total take from the 58,620 spectators was 14.2 million reais, a record for a club match in South America.
Olimpia, a three-time Libertadores winner, was rarely troubled in cagey opening by Atletico and should have been in front when Fredy Bareiro missed the best chance of the first half when he shot straight at Victor.
‘‘There were moments when the team played well and moments when the ball seemed to be burning at the feet of the players,” Atletico coach Cuca said. He said he spent most of the week working on his team’s emotional state after it conceded an injury-time goal in last week’s 2-0 loss.
His team got a break within two minutes of the restart when Wilson Pittoni missed the ball at the far post to allow Jo to score from close range. Firecrackers and flares greeted that strike and Atletico pushed for a tying goal. It was almost caught on the break when in the 82nd minute Juan Carlos Ferreyra went around goalkeeper Victor before tripping with the goal at his mercy. Defender Julio Cesar Manzur was sent off shortly after and with time running out Silva looped in a header off Bernard’s cross.
Rever headed against the bar, and Pittoni narrowly missed with a freekick before Jo squandered the chance to win the match in extra time. As the match reached penalties, several players and fans knelt in prayer. Victor saved Olimpia’s opening penalty from Herminio Miranda and every player scored until Gimenez’s had his turn. His miss was the cue brought cheers and tears as several spectators celebrated.
“Today was very tense,” said Cuca, who cut his post-match press conference short after being drenched with bucket full of ice cold water and champagne by his team. “The players are human beings they felt this obligation to make all these fans happy.”
Fans celebrated into the early morning, letting off more fireworks, blaring music, chanting team songs and tooting car horns.