Hello fans! El Bolso should be pretty damn happy today, but he’s wondering how you fix a broken system instead. Let’s get to the stories.
Nacional is your 2014-15 Uruguayan League Champion… er… maybe? El Bolso’s beloved Tricolores (winners of the Apertura title) defeated Clausura champion and traditional rival Peñarol 3-2 in the single-game semifinal, and since the Tricolores were already annual table winners they obviated the need for a final. Nacional won their 45th league trophy after 3 years without a title. Why maybe? Well, the game isn’t technically over yet. Read on.
First the good stuff: Nacional left behind their Clausura struggles and once again showed its impressive Apertura form, dominating their rivals completely. Early on it looked like the game would be a cakewalk, as the Tricolores kept finding holes in the Peñarol defense and creating danger for feisty Argentinian keeper Pablo Migliore (hey, at least he didn’t try to fight anyone this time). In the 20th minute, Carlos De Pena ran down the left wing and sent a cross into the box. Iván Alonso headed it high in the air towards the middle of the box, where teammates Leandro Barcia and Sebastián “Papelito” Fernández fought for possession as Migliore and the entire Peñarol defense watched enraptured. Papelito won, pushing the ball into the net to give Nacional the lead. Ten minutes later Barcia was taken down from behind by Diogo after a silly defensive giveaway, and Alonso converted from the spot for a 2-0 advantage. The Tricolores could not have wished for a better start.
Does that seem too easy? Yes, definitely too easy. In the second half Nacional pulled back to protect the advantage, giving Peñarol a little more control (although the Manyas seemed to lack the ability to profit from the additional touches). In the 58th minute Gabriel Leyes was shown a yellow card for rearing back and intentionally elbowing a Nacional player in the head; it should have been a red card and the end of Peñarol’s hopes. Ten minutes later, a perfect free kick by Luis Aguiar cut the lead in half, in the first meaningful Aurinegro attack since the very first play of the game. In between, Peñarol forward Juan Manuel Olivera was sent off for repeated protests; Olivera was a sub for today’s game and had not yet entered the field, so the teams remained even at 11 players per side. With the Aurinegros wildly pushing for the tying goal, Nacional coach Alvaro Gutiérrez brought on speedy winger Christian Tabó (hey ESPNFC, how about you build him a page already?). Tabó drove the Peñarol defense crazy; at one point he generated three yellow cards in about 90 seconds. The first one came on a nasty challenge by Jonathan Urretaviscaya, the second went to Jorge Rodríguez for protesting the first one, and the last to one was shown to Rodríguez again (along with the mandatory red) for taking the Nacional player down from behind on the very next play. Peñarol was down to 10 players and all seemed lost.
With three minutes left, Gutiérrez brought on Alvaro Recoba to slow the game down, but even the great Chino could not stop the inevitable. On the last play of the game, Nicolás Prieto slipped and fell while clearing a ball from Nacional’s penalty area. Urretavizcaya took over and was brought down by Prieto’s clumsy follow-up challenge. The referee correctly called the foul, and Aguiar stepped up once again to tie the game from the penalty spot. In a game where Nacional had clearly been the better team and had generated just about all the chances on goal, Peñarol had all the momentum as the game went into overtime, and it seemed we’d have to to sit through two more games to decide the league champion.
To Nacional’s credit, though, they came out for the extra period as if nothing had happened, taking full advantage of the extra man to once again dominate the run of play. Recoba could have had the game winner from about 25 yards out in the first extra period, but Migliore stretched out to push the ball away from his left post. After the break, however, el Chino would have his revenge. Nacional won a corner on the right wing, and the left-footed Recoba sent a strike to the heart of the penalty box for midfielder-turned-right fullback Santiago Romero to head in. It was a fitting end to Romero’s night, because the popular “Colorado” (so named because of his bright red hair) had been an absolute beast all game long. Romero disappointed in his first stint with Nacional, but returned after a great run in Chile to make good on the team that gave him his professional start. A natural central midfielder, he switched to the right side of the defense because of injuries to fellow players, and was one if the pillars of that record-setting Apertura campaign. After an injury-marred Clausura, Romero finally returned to his earlier form, closing down all attacks on the right side and alertly pushing forward whenever possible. Now he had given Nacional the lead.
Stay Classy, Manyas
And that, fans, is where everything went to shit. With about 7 minutes to go, Tabó once again broke free on the right wing, and as he sidestepped Migliore the keeper grabbed him and took him down. The referee called his third penalty of the night and showed Migliore a yellow card, because… I don’t know why. Migliore should have been sent to the showers for that one, as he was the last man between Tabó and the back of the net. Anyway, as Recoba stepped up to take the kick, the Peñarol supporters sitting behind Migliore’s goal reacted as any classy fan base would: they started a riot. With large chunks of concrete flying towards the field of play (Jobu’s reaction: “where do they find those huge rocks to throw?”), and the riot police running into the stands to confront the fans (why they weren’t there to begin with is anyone’s guess), the referee had no choice but to stop the game. Players, coaches and officials gathered in the middle of the field and watched as the rogue fans battled police for the next 15 minutes, showering them with rocks and ripped-out seatbacks. Eventually the cops were cornered under one of the side stands, where a concrete abutment protected them from most of the projectiles.
Inexplicably, the referee then decided to restart the game, and Recoba’s penalty kick was saved by Migliore; you try to kick into a full blown riot and see how easy it is. Replays showed that at least three of Peñarol’s defenders were inside the penalty area when the ball was struck, but the referee was in no mood to antagonize the Visigoths in the stands, so no re-kick was given. The game continued for another couple of minutes (mind you, at this point the battle between the fans and police was showing no signs of slowing down), until yet another untimely challenge by an Aurinegro defender on Tabó (seriously ESPNFC, anytime you feel like acknowledging his existence is fine by me) created a free kick opportunity on the wing. As Recoba got set to put the ball in play, TV viewers suddenly saw a large vehicle enter the picture and nearly run el Chino over; it was the medical team’s ambulance, whose driver obviously did not feel safe parked so close to the beginnings of the Uruguayan Spring of 2015. The referee finally suspended the game, because when the players are being chased by minivans with sirens on them your game has officially turned into an episode of the Benny Hill Show.
And that was that. The referee left the pitch, and Nacional was left as the unofficial League Champion. There was the usual ceremony, with the players climbing onto a makeshift stage and receiving medals and a trophy: league officials withheld the official Cup (because the game was technically not over yet), but no one told Coca Cola, so the final’s main sponsor handed out their own prizes to the Tricolores. The players could not have cared less; they put on celebratory T-shirts and celebrated, climbing onto the goals, walking up to the stands to salute their fans, and grabbing some souvenirs.
The League disciplinary committee will meet to consider the matter, but look, this game is done. Nacional will be declared winner by a 3-2 score and official champions, and then they’ll have to figure out a fitting punishment for the other guys. El Bolso thinks maybe a season or two in the second division might help settle the Manyas down, but clearly that won’t happen to one of the country’s two main soccer powers. Besides, if stabbing a rival fan to death didn’t cause these animals to reflect on their life choices, I doubt there’s any punishment that can make that happen. Press reports alleged that Peñarol ruling council members were devastated and embarrassed by the fan behavior, to the point that they weren’t planning to contest whatever ruling comes their way. Maybe they should have shown some of that common sense earlier in the week, instead of instructing their security personnel to hand out tickets to known hooligans.
So there you have it, folks. Nacional should have won this game easily, but in the end a win is a win and a title is a title (whenever the league gets around to officially acknowledging both). A hearty congratulations goes out to the entire roster for a fantastic season. As for Recoba, a postgame interview revealed that he is pretty much set on retirement. El Chino said he hadn’t made a decision about his future yet, but that he felt that this was a fitting end to his latest cycle at Nacional, and that his family was excited at the prospect of having him all to themselves for a while. He also expressed his wish to remain at Nacional in some capacity and “do something really great for Nacional.” It’s rumored that in the last few days he had received a big money offer to go abroad, but squashed it in order to concentrate on the finals, so he can probably keep playing if he wants to, but it really looks as if Recoba is focused on his post-playing career. Thanks for the memories, Chino, and here’s hoping you get your wish to make Nacional even more special than it already is.
The Points Are the Thing
The Copa América has kicked off, and the Celestes played their first game on Saturday against Jamaica’s “Reggae Boyz.” With Argentina and Paraguay rounding out the group, this seemed like Uruguay’s best chance for a win, but opening games have not been kind to coach Oscar Tabárez. In seven previous official tournaments at the helm three Copa Américas, three World Cups, one Confederations Cup), El Maestro had never won their opening game (three ties, four losses). So El Bolso was pretty anxious before this game; anything but a win would be bad news for Uruguay’s chances to reach the knockout stages.
As it turns out, I had good reason to worry: Uruguay played an awful game, letting Jamaica push them around and relying on long balls to generate any sort of offense. Diego Rolan was disappointing in his big stage debut, and someone should really give Edinson Cavani directions to the stadium next time. Nicolás Lodeiro was about the best Uruguay showed up front; he missed a lot of easy passes, but he had a handful of thread-the-needle passes that were pretty much the only Celeste chances in the first half. Jamaica, meanwhile, had a couple of chances due to weak defending by Uruguay, but didn’t really show much more than an orderly defense and a penchant for shoving people in the back on divided balls.
The second half was more of the same, but in the 52nd minute Uruguay managed to get on the board thanks to a well-executed dead ball. Lodeiro took a free kick from the left wing, close to the end line, and sent a cross towards the far post. José María Giménez headed it straight down into the heart of the box, where Cristian “el Cebolla” Rodríguez (yes, the Onion, because as a little kid he was so good he made defenders cry) reached out and poked it into the net. It was perhaps more than Uruguay deserved at the time, but hey, a goal is a goal. Jamaica threatened a couple of times through some well-placed headers, and Christian Stuani had a ridiculously easy chance to double the lead with just a couple of minutes left, but the game ended with a 1-0 Uruguay win. It was a poor performance by the Celestes, but the three points considerably shorten the odds of Uruguay playing in the quarterfinals, so I’ll take them.
Next up for Uruguay is Argentina, and the Albicelestes will come into that game in a foul mood after squandering a two goal lead against Paraguay and settling for a 2-2 tie. We’ll see if the Celestes can raise their game for that one.
In other games, host Chile took the early lead in Group A by beating Ecuador 2-0, while Mexico and Bolivia played to a scoreless tie. In Group C, Venezuela shocked Colombia, beating their neighbors 1-0, and Peru looked to do the same when they went up 1-0 on Brazil just 3 minutes in; that lead was short-lived however, as Neymar equalized just 2 minutes later. Still, Peru hung in the entire game, and it wasn’t until the very last minute that Brazil finally took the lead, with Neymar feeding Douglas Costa for the winning score.
Odds and Ends
Uruguay bowed out of the U20 World Cup, losing to Brazil 5-4 in penalty kicks after a scoreless tie. The Celestes were outclassed by their neighbors and were fortunate not to lose earlier, but they took Brazil to the edge of the abyss. El Bolso can’t help but wonder what could have been: in addition to the Brazilians, the tournament semifinals will feature Mali and Serbia, neither of whom were able to defeat Uruguay in the group stage. In any case, congratulations to a Celeste squad that goes home early but undefeated, and better luck next time!
Before I go, congratulations are in order for Villa Teresa, which prevailed in the Second Division promotion playoff over to clinch their first ever spot in the Uruguayan First Division. El Villa,which has been kicking around the lower levels of Uruguayan fútbol since 1941, came back from an early 2-0 deficit against Boston River to tie the game at 2 (the first leg had ended 1-1), then prevailed 4-3 in penalty kicks to join Liverpool and Plaza Colonia (they won promotion spots during the regular season). It was the sweetest revenge for Villa Teresa: they lost on penalty kicks to Rampla Juniors in last season’s playoff final, and will now play in the top division while Rampla returns to the lower level.
El Bolso would also like to greet Nacional’s reserve team, which beat River Plate 2-0 to win their third consecutive youth division title. Like their older counterparts, the young Tricolores finished first in the annual table, so a win this week was all they needed to win the trophy. River was hoping to win this game to force a two-game final playoff, but it was not to be. The Tricolor jersey reigns supreme at all levels of Uruguayan futbol, fans, which is as it should be. As for me, I’ll be back throughout the next couple of weeks to give you my two cents on the Copa América, but for now I’ll leave you (of course) with the sweet, sweet strains of Pasión Tricolor. Nacional NOMAAAAAAAA!
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