As if defeat to Raja Casablanca in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013 had not been disappointing enough, Clube Atletico Mineiro very nearly plummeted to even greater depths of despair during a thrilling match for third place against Guangzhou Evergrande FC.
In their bid to avoid a second loss in two games – and the worst campaign of a Brazilian team in competition history – O Galo needed to dig deep into their motivational reserves both in the aftermath of their last-four slip-up and during Saturday’s game with the Asian champions, which proved much more complex than many had predicted.
In the end, however, the Copa Libertadores holders’ anxiety turned into relief thanks to an injury-time winner from Luan, the substitute making it 3-2 to Atletico just minutes after his team had been rocked by a red card to star man Ronaldinho. Indeed, outgoing coach Cuca must have been delighted with how his charges responded to that setback, and all the negativity surrounding the Raja reverse, with a decisive late show of courage.
“It’s true that we were a bit anxious when taking the field, after everything that’d happened in our previous game,” forward Diego Tardelli said, speaking to FIFA.com. “We were really worried about the fact we couldn’t afford to lose the game, as that would have made a bad situation even worse.
"We were lucky enough to get a goal in the first couple of minutes and we thought that’d calm us down, but before long they’d turned the scoreline on its head. Fortunately we’ve got an experienced team and, even after we went a man down, we were able to play football and get that late goal.”
Yet even with third place safely in his club’s grasp, Tardelli certainly did appear more relieved than pleased with a victory that failed to compensate for Atletico missing out on the final here on Moroccan soil. Indeed, reaching the decider had been the least the squad had dreamed of achieving, after what had been an historic year for O Galo.
“Even though it was for third place [and not the title], we needed to value this game,” he went on. “Of course, we’d all been aiming higher, but at least we ended on a positive note. In Brazilian football, third place is seen as nothing, you’ve always got to be challenging for the title. But since it’s the first time Atletico have played in a Club World Cup, I think the experience will be useful.”
A new era
The conclusion of Atletico’s Club World Cup adventure also represented the end of the era for the club, with boss Cuca overseeing his final match at the helm. Having led the Minas Gerais-state outfit to the highest point in their history this year when lifting the Libertadores for the very first time, the respected supremo is leaving for a new challenge with China’s Shandong Luneng.
And though the mood in the camp was not the most fitting for lengthy speeches or farewell parties, the departure of one coach and the imminent arrival of another – Paulo Autuori, a Libertadores champion with Cruzeiro in 1997 and Sao Paulo in 2005 – was something Tardelli tackled with a positive frame of mind.
“We [the squad] didn’t really speak to him about it [him leaving] in the end, because it was a moment just for us, about wanting to end the competition with dignity," concluded Tardelli.
"But all of this puts an even greater value on the year we’ve all had. That’s why the only thing to say is to thank Cuca for the excellent job he’s done over the past two years. Next year I think we’ll win the Libertadores again and come back here [to Morocco].”