Ever Hugo Almeida already held a prominent place in Olimpia’s footballing history long before 27 January 2013, when he began his third stint in charge of the club. Indeed, over the course of 18 years with the Asuncion side, the former goalkeeper picked up no fewer than 16 trophies, among them the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup.
Understandably, Almeida sought to draw inspiration from Olimpia’s prestigious past after returning to the club closest to his heart in what was a period of great uncertainty for El Decano. Despite having secured a place in the qualifying round of this year’s Libertadores, serious doubts surrounded the quality of the squad. These were very much in evidence when the coach took up the reins in January just days before the make-or-break Libertadores first-round return fixture against Uruguay’s Defensor Sporting. Just the previous week in Montevideo, Olimpia had played out a 0-0 first-leg draw that was as uninspiring as it was disconcerting.
Fast-forward six months and the outlook is completely different. After their 2-0 defeat of Atletico Mineiro last Wednesday in the first leg of the final in Asuncion, the Paraguayans are within touching distance of their fourth Libertadores crown – something unimaginable at the start of the year.
“It’s true, few people thought we could even get past the first round,” Almeida told FIFA.com just hours before departing for Brazil. “The squad was practically the same group of players who had finished our league championship with a rout at the hands of a team that nearly went down. Then there was the issue of several months’ unpaid wages. People ask me now if what we’ve done is a miracle, and I tell them no: it’s the fruit of hard work by a group that became convinced of what they could achieve if they united behind an idea."
Almeida admitted the turning point came during the early stages of the Libertadores campaign: “It was our 5-1 defeat of Deportivo Lara back in the group phase. We went into the game after losing in Argentina to Newell’s and drawing at home to Lara, having been 2-0 up. Yet we went to Venezuela and thumped them.
"That day the players realised how important is was to accept my system, as the previous year they’d had three coaches, each with a different approach. They still weren’t used to it, but they realised that if they didn’t adapt to it, then they didn’t play."
When it comes to the Libertadores, there is no doubting Almeida’s authority. The current edition is his fourth final with Olimpia, having won it twice as player in 1979 and 1990 and finished runner-up in 1989. In fact, the coach sees similarities between this campaign and the club’s first success, against Boca Juniors in Argentina.
“No-one gave us much of a chance that year either, and nor was our football at a great level," he recalled. "It was like this edition: a coach came along who got us playing a certain way and made us believe."
Almeida eyes Paraguay reins, 1990 redemption
For all that, Almeida is practical enough to know that systems and tactics need adapting. Indeed, in this Libertadores campaign, he experimented with several different formations before opting for the 3-5-2 that worked so well in Venezuela and which he has stuck with for the most part. Therein, perhaps, lies one of his principal strengths as a coach – the ability to adapt to the circumstances and the squads at his disposal as a starting point in the formation of his teams and footballing matters.
His track record as a coach certainly affords him authority. In 1993, barely a year into management, his Olimpia side went unbeaten en route to the national league title. In 1999 he was in charge of the Paraguayan senior team during the Copa America in Colombia, where his charges won their group unbeaten before bowing out in the quarters on penalties. In 2001 Almeida then took up the reins at Guatemalan outfit Municipal, with whom he won three league titles and one international club competition in four seasons. From there he headed for Ecuador, where he secured back-to-back league titles with El Nacional, before returning to Paraguay to lead Club Nacional to their first league title in 63 years.
In 2010 Almeida took charge of the Guatemala national teams, steering the ir youngsters to a first appearance at a FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2011, and would continue at the helm of Los Chapínes until they failed to reach the Hexagonal final phase of the region’s qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. From there, the lure of Olimpia proved too strong as he returned for another spell in charge.
This track record and wealth of experience has led to many predicting he will one day coach the Paraguayan national team. Almeida did not shirk the question when we put it to him.
“Yes, I’d like to, of course," he said. "I came back here after 12 years not only with the goal of putting Olimpia back where they belong, but also to stay here and see what happens. That said, while I regret missing out on the 1986 World Cup through injury, I don’t see it as some unfinished business I have to put right as a coach.
“My biggest disappointment was our losing the Intercontinental Cup to AC Milan in Japan in 1990. I’ve always said that one day I’d reach that final again to make amends. Winning the Copa would give me the chance to do that at the Club World Cup, although I don’t want to get ahead of myself. For now all that matters is winning our fourth Copa crown."
To that end, Almeida has received a level of support that has surprised even him: “It’s not just our fans who want us to become champions, but the whole country. I’ve been in finals before but I’ve never experienced anything like it. There’s an energy about that’s contagious. It keeps growing and driving us on.
In fact, nothing seems to ruffle this veteran, not even our final question about what he intends to say to his players before sending them out at the Mineriao on Wednesday night.
“It’s hard to envisage ahead of time, as that of thing tends to stem from the emotion of the moment," he said. "I’ll probably tell them that I don’t want to see a single clean shirt in the dressing room afterwards, but rather dirty, stained and sweat-soaked ones – torn and in shreds if that’s what it takes."