Rewind back to October 2003. Nacional have just been crowned Paraguayan second-division champions, clinching a return to the elite after five years in the wilderness. Not even the sight of 22-year-old defender Raul Piris hobbling through the lap of honour on crutches is enough to put a damper on things for the squad or fans.
Today, Piris is a seasoned veteran and a venerated captain, having made over 400 appearances for his boyhood side since joining La Academia at the age of 16. The sole survivor of that promotion-winning campaign, he has tasted glory in the Primera Division three times during this period, ending a top-flight title drought dating back over six decades in the process. Now he is bracing himself for the biggest occasion in the club's history: the Copa Libertadores final against Argentinian giants San Lorenzo.
One-club players are something of a novely in today's football world. "That's true, but I dreamed of playing here as a kid, so once I got the breakthrough, I was never going to leave for just any old offer," the centre-back nicknamed El Muro (The Wall) told FIFA.com. "There have been plenty of rumours, but nothing firm has ever materialised. I've no regrets: everything happens for a reason. God must have left me here to achieve big things with Nacional. If I'd left, I wouldn't be about to play in the Libertadores final for the club I love," noted the 33-year-old.
Keeping the faith
Just hours before the first leg, the inspirational skipper is remarkably relaxed. Far from fazed by the occasion, he is simply relishing the opportunity. "I'm really happy, because I know how hard it is to fulfil certain dreams in football. I used to watch the teams that made it to the final on TV and it was always the big boys. Now I know that if you show dedication, hard work and humility, anyone can do it. We knew what a big ask it was, but here we are," added the defender, who featured in ten of the club's 12 matches on the way to the final, starting all but one of those.
This run has been such a turn-up for the books that practically no one had Nacional down as potential finalists after the group stage, from which they advanced with the worst record out of all the runners-up: eight points and a negative goal difference. So, what has changed? "This is the fourth time this squad have taken part in the Libertadores and we'd never got past the group stage before. Doing so took the pressure off us," explained Piris. There are also footballing reasons: "We knew it was important to be solid at home in the knockout rounds, so that became our aim. We'd shipped a lot of goals, so we made some defensive tweaks and the results speak for themselves," the stalwart went on, alluding to Nacional's three clean-sheet wins at home en route to the final (1-0 victories over Velez Sarsfield and Arsenal and a 2-0 defeat of Defensor Sporting).
If I'd left, I wouldn't be about to play in the Libertadores final for the club I love.
Still, while it is true that El Albo shut out their opponents in Asuncion, they still had to take care of business on the road, sealing their progress by grinding out two draws in Argentina and a narrow reverse in Uruguay. "The tie against Velez, who had been the best team in the group stage, was a confidence-booster. Getting over the line in Argentina showed us we were a match for anyone," claimed the stopper, as quick to answer our questions as he is to cover for his full-backs and snuff out opposition counter-attacks.
Piris, who has never been capped by his country, is in no doubt as to what the key will be against San Lorenzo. "The home leg. We have to win without conceding to be in with a fighting chance in the return match – that's what's got us this far. They're the favourites, but they respect us as much as we do them. We're both in for 180 hard-fought minutes and ultimately details will make the difference."
An historic send-off?
Against San Lorenzo, Piris will be sporting a specially designed captain's armband featuring mementoes of Nacional's history. Rolled out for the second leg against Defensor, it includes pieces of the club flag from when they first lifted the league trophy (1909), the kit used in their maiden Libertadores campaign (1983) and the shirt worn by the legendary Arsenio Erico in the title-winning 1942 season. "They asked me if I'd wear it and of course I said yes. I wore it with the same pride I feel whenever I pull on the shirt."
For so long a Nacional mainstay, the centre-half – whose heroes are fellow Paraguayan great Carlos Gamarra, who had a journeyed career, and Spain legend Carles Puyol, who never left Barcelona – was forthcoming when asked if he might not fancy trying his luck elsewhere before hanging up his boots. "Well, a transfer before I retire might be nice, but only if something much better comes along. Plus, I have the added motivation of potentially playing in the Club World Cup. But anyway, all of that is completely in the back of my mind. Right now I'm only thinking about the first leg against San Lorenzo," he insisted.
Indeed, invited to let his mind wander, Piris took his leave by envisioning not an overdue move away, but rather the fulfilment of another long-awaited ambition: "I picture myself lifting the trophy as captain. I can't deny it; after all, dreaming is free. But to make it happen, we will have to give absolutely everything. We're all on the same page: we know we have to play our hearts out and run our socks off to make our dream come true."