After a long roll-call of victories and trophies, followed by an extended honeymoon period, a shock defeat in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013 against Raja Casablanca brought Atletico Mineiro down to earth with a bump. Nobody from the Brazilian team imagined they would be making such an early exit from the competition.
Upon leaving the Marrakech stadium, the joy and optimism that has been the hallmark of Atletico in recent years was replaced with profound disappointment. Even the senior players were unable to hide their disillusionment. “We didn’t have much to say and perhaps it was just as well," Ronaldinho Gaucho said, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "Our heads were hot and we were really down. We were expecting a tough match, and it was an entertaining, open game, with lots of goal-scoring opportunities for both sides. They were lucky enough to finish their chances.”
Captain Rever also struggled to find words, even after a long time to reflect on the game in the Marrakech stadium dressing room. A few months earlier he had lifted the Copa Libertadores aloft, but now the feeling was precisely the opposite. “It was tough to speak," Rever said. "It was better to calm down first, in order to avoid more discomfort, tension or even arguments in the dressing room."
“It’s sickening, unacceptable, especially as we started as one of the tournament favourites and got knocked out that way. The saving grace is that we’re an experienced team, with players who have seen and done it all before, like Ronaldinho and Gilberto. Nobody in particular is to blame for this exit.”
In the history books
Although deep disappointment is fresh in the mind, a look back at the not-too-distant past brings comfort to the players. In 2011 the team was going through hard times, but managed an amazing turnaround that would lead to a first ever triumph in the Copa Libertadores. Drawing on the memory of that historic conquest was the ideal way to heal the wounds of the defeat and look forward to something similar in the future.
“It was a wonderful year. We made history in a club that goes back 100 years,” Ronaldinho said. “We are happy to be part of that, to represent this generation of the club in this historic year. Unfortunately we didn’t close out the year with a perfect ending. But it is something that serves as experience so that next time we are even more focused and don’t make the same mistakes.”
“I’m still extremely proud to be in Atletico's history books. Today sadness has taken over from the happiness when we arrived in Marrakech, but you can’t win them all,” added Rever. “We had our hearts set on making the final, who knows if we’d have won it or not, but we wanted the chance to try and win the trophy.”
A memory the Atletico players, and especially Ronaldinho, will never forget is the adulation shown towards them by the Moroccans over the past few weeks. This was exemplified at the end of Wednesday’s match when the Raja Casablanca players Vivien Mabide and Deo Kanda were more than happy to openly display their reverence towards the Brazilian superstar on the pitch in front of the crowd.
“Even at a hugely disappointing moment, the warmth I’ve been shown since I arrived here is something special. It was out of the ordinary, a very special affection. It’s very gratifying to see even the opponents treat me like this,” the No10 said. “These kinds of gestures stay with you for the rest of your life.”
Looking to end on a high
Of course, Ronaldinho would prefer to have satisfied the fans of his own club, but with a last match to play in Morocco, Atletico have reason aplenty to beat Guangzhou Evergrande. They will be trying to avoid becoming the worst-placed Brazilian team in Club World Cup history - Internacional were third in 2010 - and also make sure coach Cuca, who is set to train Chinese outfit Shandong Luneng next season, leaves the club on a good note.
“We didn’t speak much in the dressing room, but in the next few days we’re going to have to clear our heads, talk to each other and analyse what we did right and what we did wrong," Ronaldinho said. "We want to go out on a high."