The camera panned in on Leonardo Ponzio’s face as he waited to collect his FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015 runners-up medal on Sunday. It revealed a player fighting to hold back the tears as he stared into the distance, perhaps reflecting on the moment when he lost possession to allow Barcelona to counter and score the first of their three goals of the afternoon.
The tears were still there when Ponzio made his way through the mixed zone at the International Stadium Yokohama. Giving a faltering voice to his emotions, he told FIFA.com: “You cry when you lose a final like this.”
Nearly 34, he knows he may not have another chance to win the Club World Cup: “It was very important for me because of the stage I’m at in my career. I don’t know if I’ll be able to experience something like this again.”
It was only a year and a half ago that Ponzio had one foot out of the door at River Plate. Having not played at all under Ramon Diaz, his future looked to be elsewhere. It was then that Marcelo Gallardo settled into the River hotseat, marking a change in the player’s fortunes.
Having earned more opportunities in the side as a result of Matias Kranevitter’s long-term injury, he played a key role in River’s defeat of arch-rivals Boca Juniors in the 2014 Copa Sudamericana semi-finals, encapsulating the desire, character and energy needed to steer the team through a highly charged tie. His presence was just as vital in this year’s triumphant Copa Libertadores campaign, in which he cemented his reputation as River’s gladiator.
He had hoped that those virtues and his extensive experience would help River give as good as they got against a Barcelona side he described as “one of the best in the world”.
“It’s important for me to come up against teams like that and players like that at this stage of my career because you’ve got all this know-how and experience behind you," Ponzio explained. “There was a chance we could beat them, and to do that we needed to take the ball from them, hit them on the counter and show them what we could do.
"There were times when we did that and we performed well as a team, but then they just came up with the kind of moves that only one or two players can do. We kept them at bay until [Lionel] Messi, Neymar and [Luis] Suarez began to turn it on and turned the game in their favour.”
A born winner, the midfielder is not about to rest on his laurels following a magical year and a half for River, in which they have lifted four international titles: “We’ve been winning things for over a year now and this was the most we could ask for. We haven’t achieved what we wanted but we need to go away on holiday now and think about what lies ahead.”