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Hey now, El Bolso is back once again to talk about Nacional and the Copa Libertadores 2014, although the way things are going I may not be doing this ever again. This week, Los Tricolores crossed the river to play reigning Argentinian champion Newell’s Old Boys, although given what happened they probably should have stayed home. Newell’s ran over my beloved team, beating them 4-0 and leaving their hopes of moving on to the next phase hanging by the proverbial thread. Coach Gerardo Pelusso, who has enough cache at Nacional to be able to speak his mind about disasters like this, called his team’s performance “impresentable,” meaning a total disgrace. He also said that this can’t possibly be the reality of the team’s abilities, because if it were they would be wallowing in absolute poverty. Nacional fever: catch it!

Let’s talk a little bit about this week’s opponent. Newell’s hails from the city of Rosario, located on the banks of the Paraná river, about 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. It is, according to Wikipedia, the third largest city in Argentina, and the largest city that is not a provincial or national capital. It is home to approximately 1.2 million people, which makes it almost as big as Montevideo. Rosario is home to two major soccer teams: Newell’s and Rosario Central. They are both usually in the first division (although Central just returned from the second tier this season), but are not included in the group of traditional powers like River Plate, Boca Juniors, Independiente, and so on. Central’s last of a handful of titles happened in 1986; before last season, Newell’s had won about once a decade since the 70s. Internationally, Newell’s has not enjoyed much success, but they did reach the Libertadores final in 1988 and 1992 (more on that in a second), and were in the semifinals last year. Newell’s is traditionally known as “La Lepra,” which means leprosy. Yes, leprosy, the terrible disease. I don’t know what to tell you. Rosario’s other big team, Central, goes by “Los Canallas” which roughly translates to scumbags. Rosario must be a lovely place to visit.  But that is neither here nor there; I’m not writing a travel blog, I’m here to talk about the Libertadores. Besides, anyone who roots for a team whose nickname means “the pocket” shouldn’t be throwing stones. Newell’s jersey, which is divided vertically into red and black halves, is one of my favorites in Argentina and a fairly popular design, used by first division rivals Colon as well as a couple of lower division Uruguayan teams. It is typically used by teams that were founded by anarchist groups (red and black being the colors of the movement), although Wikipedia tells me in Newell’s case it was an homage to the German and British flags. Whatever you say, Mr. Newell…

Newell's Old Boys
Newell’s players celebrating a goal. Scenes like this one took up roughly 67% of the game. (Infobae)

As is typical in South American soccer, there was much drama in the weeks leading up to the match. The day of the game, Nacional’s delegation was visited by El Bolso favorite “El Loco” Abreu, who is currently playing for Rosario Central. Abreu accompanied the team in the traditional pre-game stadium scouting trip, but was “invited to leave” by Newell’s security. This makes complete sense; you don’t want any scumbags around to spoil all the great leprosy. There was a report that Newell’s execs had contacted Nacional to ask that both games between the teams be played without away fans because of their own hooligans’ animosity towards the Uruguayans. Nacional issued a press release urging their fans not to travel to the game, even after Newell’s made 2,000 tickets available at the last minute. After a lot of back and forth and he said/he said, about 750 white-clad fans made the long trip in rented buses and, after surviving a vigorous stoning a few meters from the stadium (with some gunshots thrown in for good measure), occupied the stands behind one of the goals.

And why, might you ask, are Newell’s fans so angry at the humble Tricolores? Let’s take a trip back to the 1988 Libertadores finals, La Lepra’s first step onto the international limelight. After surviving a first round pairing against San Lorenzo de Almagro, now famous as the Pope’s favorite team, and Ecuadorian powers Barcelona (no, not that one) and Filanbanco, Newell’s eliminated Bolivar, one of Bolivia’s most successful sides, lost a quarterfinal matchup against Nacional, beat San Lorenzo in the semis, and made it into the finals against… you guessed it, Nacional. After a 1-0 win in Rosario, Newell’s could not hold on in Montevideo, losing 3-0 in what was the last time a Uruguayan club won the cup. Now, you might be asking how Newell’s ended up in the semifinals after losing in the previous round. I’ll get into the colossal joke that was the 1988 Libertadores bracket some other time. For now, I will say that there were only three quarterfinal matchups, so one of the losers moved on to the next round, and that loser was Newell’s, outranking defending champion Peñarol by goal difference because of an own goal scored by Nacional’s Jorge Cardaccio in the second half of the return match . There are some who say that Cardaccio scored on purpose in order to eliminate Peñarol; that is an absurd claim. He merely jumped in front of his own goalie on an uncontested corner and headed the ball down and towards the goal line. In any case, the only reason Newell’s was even in the final was that gift goal, so why would they be mad at Nacional?

Hugo de Leon
Team captains getting ready for the 1988 Libertadores final. Yes, that’s Hugo de Leon again. No, he’s not paying me to keep putting him in the posts. (Pueblo Tricolor)

As far as this game goes, it got off to a late start as the referee forced the Newell’s goalie to change his socks because of color regulations. They argued for a good five minutes, then it took five more for the Newell’s support staff to tape over the offending piece of sock. No one noticed this before the game? Was Newell’s staff unaware of regulations that have been in place for years and years? Does no official perform a uniform check in the locker rooms while we’re subjected to all those commercials? There’s a fourth official that basically sits there all night long and only intervenes to hold up the little sign that shows the player numbers when someone is substituted, or to quiet down an unruly coach. Could this person not handle additional duties so that the games can begin on time? Did it hurt Nacional? I don’t think so, but if you’re going to put on an international tournament that is seen worldwide, and you are going to try to argue that it is better than the Champion’s League (which CONMEBOL actually does), then please try to behave in a professional manner while the cameras are on. You can always go back to taking bribes and partying with hookers, or whatever it is that CONMEBOL officials do with their time, after the final whistle.

Once the game finally did get started, Newell’s thoroughly dominated from beginning to end. Their quick diagonal runs and sure passing wreaked havoc on Nacional’s defense, creating many clear goal chances; the final score actually seems generous when compared to the actual difference on the field. Nacional bet on populating its own half of the field and leaving Alonso alone up front, but the counterattacks never materialized because they could not pry the ball away from Newell’s players. La Lepra put on a display that took advantage of all the limitations that Nacional had shown in the previous games: slow, uncoordinated defenders, a conservative midfield, and no commitment to pushing players forward to help Alonso. Look, I could talk about how Nacional was only down 1-0 until an unfortunate own goal happened in the last minute of the first half, or how the few times the Bolso players pushed forward they found (and wasted) clear chances that could have changed the outcome of the game, but the truth is this: Newell’s was by far the better team, and Nacional looked like it didn’t even belong on the same field. One could argue about this or that play, but the truth is the final score reflects the run of play. Now Nacional is in last place and must sweep the next two games against Atletico Nacional of Colombia to maintain hope of moving on; having watched the group games this far, I think the best we can hope for is that they manage to keep games close and put some points on the board. The focus at this point should probably shift to winning the local league and giving the kids some extended playing time as preparation for putting together next year’s squad.

Game Highlights:

About El Bolso

El Bolso is Uruguay’s foremost soccer-fan-in-exile, a true authority on the Celeste and its favored son, the Club Nacional de Football. He believes in precision passing, tireless marking, and strong finishing, and is not above the occasional slide tackle from behind when the situation calls for it.

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