Last time, we looked at how Nacional managed to barely put a team and coaching staff in place in time to qualify for the 1980 Libertadores Cup. In part 2, we look at how they fared in the early going.
First Round Dominance
Nacional began their road in the Libertadores Cup on April 9, facing Defensor in the historic Centenario stadium; completing the group were Oriente Petrolero and The Strongest of Bolivia. While this was considered a winnable series for the Uruguayan teams, they still had to contend with the altitude of La Paz, so starting off with a win in their matchup was very important. A goal from José Cabrera in the 73rd minute sealed the first win for Nacional, while Oriente Petrolero was doing the same against The Strongest. Nacional was then off to Bolivia for two road games: they beat Oriente 3-1 on April 13 (two goals from De la Peña and one by Milar), but lost 3-0 to The Strongest on April 17th, a defeat made all the more painful by the Bolivian club’s yellow-and-black striped jersey (if you don’t know by now, those are Peñarol’s colors). Defensor matched the Tricolores’ performance, getting a win against Oriente and losing to The Strongest, so at the half point of the round Nacional was tied with The Strongest with 4 points (wins were still worth 2 points each then), with Defensor and Oriente 2 points back. This was a pretty good place to be, considering that all the remaining games would be played on Uruguayan soil.
The rematch against Defensor (also at the Centenario, although Nacional was officially the visiting team) was played on April 23rd (they really powered through cup stages back in the day, didn’t they?), and this time Nacional did not have to wait for late heroics: they beat the Violetas (The Purple Ones, a reference to Defensor’s jersey color) 3-0 with a free kick from Arsenio Luzardo and two goals from Victorino, who was starting to warm up to international competition. The Strongest kept pace by beating Oriente 3-2 before traveling to Montevideo for the deciding games, making it a two team race for first place in the group (remember, only group winners advanced back then). On April 27th, Nacional took over sole possession of first place by demolishing Oriente 5-0 (single goals from Victorino and Milar and a hat trick from Morales) while Defensor managed a 1-1 tie in the other game. Three days later Nacional and The Strongest faced off for a spot in the semifinals. The Tricolores needed only a tie to go through but avenged the loss in La Paz by a 2-0 score, with a penalty kick from Morales and yet another Victorino goal (I told you he was heating up). Nacional was in the Libertadores semifinal round for the first time since 1972 (although as defending champions they were guaranteed a spot that year).
Building a Lead at Home
The Uruguayan league championship started four days before the first Libertadores game, and Nacional could not have had a worse beginning, losing 3-0 to Bella Vista and throwing a dark cloud of worry on their upcoming international debut. They recovered nicely, however, putting together a six game winning streak heading into the derby against Peñarol: they beat Rentistas (2-0), Wanderers (2-0), Huracán Buceo (2-1), Progreso (5-0), River Plate (3-2), and Cerro (2-0), and opened up a comfortable lead on the rest of the league. On June 11th, a week before a key Libertadores semifinal road game, and with more than 56 thousand fans in the stands, Nacional beat their traditional rivals 3-1 with goals from Espárrago, Moreira, and of course Victorino. The local league looked to be within their grasp.
A game against Danubio, always a tough matchup, was up next; Nacional lost by a final score of 3-2. Maybe the Tricolores looked past this game, coming three days after the derby and four days before the biggest game of the Libertadores semifinal round; maybe Danubio was simply good enough to beat them. Either way the good guys had lost their second game of the league season, but once again they would recover, finishing the first half of the season with four more wins: 2-0 over Defensor (which was rapidly becoming a favorite punching bag), 1-0 against Miramar, 3-1 against Sud América, and 4-1 over Fénix. Now, back then there was no Opening and Closing tournaments and no end of season playoffs; teams played each other twice (home and away) and the club with the most points at the end was the champion, like they still do in Europe. So coming in first at the halfway point did not guarantee Nacional anything, but it’s still better to be on top and have a lead you can hang on to as you battle multiple competitions. Speaking of which:
De la Peña De la Peña De la Peña…
When you think of a semifinal round in any competition, you’re probably thinking of two teams facing off against one another, probably in a two game, home-and-away situation. That was not how the Libertadores did business back then. See, there are only 10 federations in South American soccer (this was before Conmebol started inviting Mexican teams to improve TV revenues), which were logically placed into 5 groups; after that the math didn’t add up. So the defending champion was placed directly into the second round, and the teams were organized into two groups of three, which played off in another double round robin format. The two group winners advanced to the final. In the semifinal draw, Nacional got some good news and some bad news: on the plus side, they avoided the always powerful Argentina and Brazil representatives (Velez Sarsfield and Internacional de Porto Alegre), as well as an América de Cali squad that was beginning to reap the benefits of its association with Colombia’s drug cartels (they would go on to lose three straight Libertadores finals in the mid-80s). O’Higgins of Chile, considered the weakest of the semifinal teams, was placed in Nacional’s group as well. So what was the bad news? That would be defending champion Olimpia of Paraguay, a team famous for its tough defending and its ability to turn the Conmebol political power games to its advantage. Still, Dante Iocco was no slouch in the boardrooms, and managed to score an important political victory: Nacional would start off on the road again, and would play the decisive games in Montevideo. The semifinals began on May 21st in Santiago de Chile, where a goal by Dardo Pérez gave Nacional a win over the hosts. Next up on June 11th was Olimpia’s visit to Santiago, which ended in another 1-0 win for the visitors; a week later Nacional traveled to Asunción for the game against Olimpia. With all manner of projectiles flying in from the stands and the PA announcers openly rooting the home team on (both violations of Conmebol rules that were ignored by the referee and later the Conmebol disciplinary board), super sub Pérez was at it again, scoring the only goal in that game to give Nacional sole possession of first place.
On July 2nd the rematch against Olimpia was played in the Centenario. Everyone (correctly, as it turned out) assumed that both teams would take care of their home games against O’Higgins, so this was the game that would decide the group winner. On a cold Montevideo winter night, the two teams played a tense, close game with a lot of tight marking and not much technical flair. Twelve minutes into the second half, Olimpia pulled ahead on a header by Benítez, a result that left the two teams tied in first place with just one game to go. Nacional desperately looked for the tying goal while the visitors held back and waited for a counterattack to seal the win. Thirteen minutes from time, Morales and Benítez went at it and were sent to the showers. Then, with just seven minutes to go, Washington González took possession at midfield and sent a long, high ball to the top of the penalty box. Victorino caught up to it and, surrounded by two defenders, headed it backwards into the heart of the box. De la Peña, running in behind the defense, caught the ball before it had a chance to bounce and unleashed a monster shot that left the Paraguayan keeper absolutely no chance. Those were the days when you would turn the volume on the TV all the way down so you could listen to Víctor Hugo Morales on the radio, and his iconic call is something that holds a special meaning for every Nacional fan: “De la Peña De la Peña De la Peña! De volea de volea de volea!” I’ll tell you this, El Bolso was six years old at the time and the room still gets very cold and dusty whenever I hear it. Olimpia tried for a second goal, but the game ended in a 1-1 tie. Two weeks later, needing a tie against O’Higgins at home (after Olimpia had beaten the Chileans 2-0 in Asunción), Nacional got goals from De la Peña and Victorino and, behind the Panther’s third shutout in four semifinal games, were in the Libertadores finals for the second time. Mujica and Gesto were on the verge of a miracle; only Internacional, having survived Velez and América de Cali, stood in the Tricolores’ way.
I think this is a good place to stop. Join me next time as Nacional wins all the cups.
De la Peña’s goal against Olimpia, with Víctor Hugo Morales audio:
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