Ever Hugo Almeida and Cuca are two men with the same dream. The respective coaches of Paraguay’s Olimpia and Atletico Mineiro of Brazil, they are hoping to lead their sides to glory in the final of this year’s Copa Libertadores, the most prestigious club competition in Latin America. In the lead-up to Wednesday’s first leg in Asuncion, FIFA.com looks at the records of the men who are firing the ambitions of their clubs.
Born in Uruguay on 1 July 1948, Almeida became a Paraguayan national in 1975, three years after his playing career took him to the country. In later years he would go on to play for Olimpia, the club that would change his life forever. Earlier this year he began his third spell in charge of El Decano, the team he openly supports. Call him on his mobile, in fact, and you will hear the strains of the tango tune Soy del Olimpia.
Some 15 years his junior, Cuca was born Alexi Stival on 7 June 1963 in Curitiba, Brazil, and has spent his entire career in his home country bar a brief stay with Spanish club Valladolid in 1990. A devout Christian, he is nevertheless known for a supposed attachment to lucky charms and matchday rituals. Despite regular questions about the subject, he chooses not to discuss it out of concern it will detract from his proven track record in the dugout. Winning the Libertadores would also help him bury his reputation as a coach whose luck deserts him on the big occasion.
Almeida: three clubs, 16 titles
Cuca: 13 clubs, five titles
An unruffled goalkeeper with a safe pair of hands and a well-earned reputation as a penalty saver, Almeida played for just three teams in his 25-year career, starting out with Cerro of Uruguay before moving to Guarani for just one year and then spending 18 seasons with Olimpia. It was with El Decano that he won all his titles as a player: ten league championships and six international trophies, among them two Copa Libertadores and an Intercontinental Cup. Before retiring at the age of 42 he also won 20 caps for Paraguay, although injury prevented him from making the squad for the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™.
For his part Cuca was a skilful and intelligent deep-lying striker with a keen eye for goal. He reached the peak of his powers in the late 1980 and early 1990s in the colours of Gremio, where he played alongside Assis, the brother of Ronaldinho, one of his charges in the current Atletico Mineiro line-up. Cuca scored the goal that won Gremio the 1989 Copa do Brasil and was also a key member of the side that lifted the Minas Gerais state title that year and the season after. In 1991 he won the state crown for the third year running, though by that time he was running out for arch rivals Internacional. It was also in 1991 that he made his sole international appearance, having been called up by Falcao for a friendly with Paraguay, a game that ended in a 1-1 draw.
Almeida: seven clubs, ten titles
Cuca: 21 clubs, four titles
A pragmatist and a man of very few words and very definite ideas, Almeida began his coaching career with Paraguayan giants Nacional one year after hanging up his boots. In 1993 he arrived at Olimpia and promptly won the league title, the only one he has won with Los Franjeados to date. His triumphs with Municipal in Guatemala led to him taking charge of the country’s U-20 and full national teams, Almeida steering the former to Guatemala’s first ever FIFA world finals at Colombia 2011. In 1999 he led Paraguay to the quarter-finals of the Copa America. Figuring in that squad was Ricardo Tavarelli, a key figure in his return to Olimpia this year.
“My concern is with playing good football,” Cuca once said, explaining his coaching philosophy. In the eyes of some, his enterprising approach is the reason why he has yet to win a national or international title. The first of his four state championship wins came with Flamengo in 2009, some ten years after he turned his hand to coaching, while the latest arrived earlier this year with Atletico Mineiro. The upcoming Copa Libertadores showdown against Olimpia is his second major final. After overseeing their miraculous escape from relegation, he looked on as his Fluminense side lost the 2009 Copa Sudamericana final to Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito.
Copa Libertadores records:
Almeida: three finals and the record for the most appearances made by a player
Cuca: has coached the team with the best record in the group phase on two occasions
No player has appeared in more Libertadores matches than the 116 Almeida racked up with Olimpia. He was also the first goalkeeper to score a goal in the competition, converting a penalty against Estudiantes in 1984. Aside from winning the competition in 1979 and 1990 he was a losing finalist in 1989, when Atletico Nacional of Medellin beat Olimpia on penalties, a shootout in which he stepped up to the spot only for Rene Higuita to save his kick.
Cuca’s finest results as a coach have come in the Libertadores. This year’s competition is the second in which he has steered a side through the group phase with the best record, an achievement he first managed with Cruzeiro in 2011. On that occasion, however, his charges were surprisingly knocked out in the last 16 by Colombia’s Once Caldas, the same team that ended his hopes of success with Sao Paulo in the semi-finals in 2004.
Previous meetings in the Libertadores:
Almeida: one win, one draw
Cuca: one win, one draw
As players Almeida and Cuca faced off twice in the Copa Libertadores, both times in the group phase in 1990, when Olimpia beat Gremio 1-0 in the Paraguayan capital before earning a 2-2 draw in Porto Alegre. While the Brazilians failed to progress to the next round, the Paraguayans went on to win the Libertadores for the second time in their history.