Welcome distraction from financial problems
6 August ~ Olimpia of Paraguay held a 2-0 lead going into last week’s Copa Libertadores final. If Atlético Mineiro were to triumph back home in Brazil it would require a turnaround every bit as dramatic as the ones on the way to the final, which included a last-minute penalty save for their away-goals progression past Tijuana in the quarters and coming from a similar two-goal first-leg deficit in the semi-final with Newell’s Old Boys. Two-and-a-half hours later, the Brazilians, featuring the 33-year-old Ronaldinho, had won a penalty shootout and were South American champions for the first time.
It was their first major title since they won the inaugral Brazilian national championship in 1971. Despite an empty-handed return home, Olimpia had still achieved something to be remembered.
In January this year Ever Hugo Almeida returned for his third spell as Olimpia coach. He was already a legend from his two decades as goalkeeper for the club, when he won ten national titles, four continental trophies and the 1979 Intercontinental Cup. (Olimpia have "King of Cups" printed on most of their merchandise and on the back of their shirts, below the number, it says "Champions of the World"). But Almeida rejoined at a time when winning cups was far from the most important issue facing the club. A financial crisis meant that the players hadn’t been paid in months and poor league form wasn't providing any respite.
Almeida steered Olimpia through the Copa Libertadores qualifying round in his first game in charge, but little more was expected from a side considered to be weaker than even the two other Paraguayan contenders, Libertad and Cerro Porteño. The coach has put the team’s unlikely run, based around a rapid counter-attacking style, down to hard work and belief, but they also faced the further obstacle of losing captain Richard Ortiz before the semi-final – the team's one stand-out player was sold to service debts.
Come the final and Olimpia looked on course to add to their 1979, 1990 and 2002 Copa Libertadores titles following their win in Asunción. Sadly for them the return match hinged on one unfortunate moment for their Argentine striker Juan Carlos Ferreyra. Had he slotted into an empty net with five minutes to go, with the score standing at 2-1 on aggregate, Olimpia would surely have won. Instead he slipped, the moment passed and when Atlético were two minutes from defeat, Leonardo Silva looped home a header.
In the week since their heroic disappointment the club have celebrated their 111th birthday and restarted the Paraguayan league season with a win. Their homecoming reception was one of pride not despondency, with national newspaper Ultima Hora summing things up in saying that Olimpia “did not win the fourth Libertadores, but the respect of all America”. Iain Pearce