Though more than 10,000 kilometres separate Catalunya from Buenos Aires, and while Barcelona and River Plate have never met in an official match before, there are numerous links between the two FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015 finalists, aside from the fact they are both legendary footballing institutions.
With just a few hours to go before the tournament reaches its climax, FIFA.com reveals and recalls some of the links between Los Blaugrana and Los Millonarios.
Eleven double agents
Sunday’s final in Yokohama will be a particularly special occasion for two players, one on either side: River Plate striker Javier Saviola and Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano, who have both worn the rival shirt, respectively between 2001 and 2007 and between 2003 and 2005.
The duo are just two of 11 men to have run out for both clubs, the first of them being the midfielder Florencio Caffaratti, who wore the River shirt in 1939/40 and pulled on the Barça jersey between 1947 and 1949. He was followed by Peruvian midfielder Miguel Loayza, the Argentinians Luis Cubilla, Juan Carlos Heredia, Juan Antonio Pizzi, Roberto Bonano, Juan Pablo Sorin and Maxi Lopez, and the Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez.
What might have been
Very nearly adding their names to that list were two legends of the game. Back in 1953 Barcelona negotiated the transfer of one Alfredo Di Stefano with River Plate, the club he had played for before making an unauthorised move to Millonarios of Bogota following the suspension of the Argentinian league. Real Madrid were also in discussions with the Colombian club, however, and reached an agreement with them, which led to the two great Spanish rivals both claiming that the player, nicknamed La Saeta Rubia (“The Blond Arrow”), was theirs.
FIFA intervened, appointing former Spanish FA chairman Armando Munoz Calero to resolve the conflict. His solution was to announce that Di Stefano should play for Real in the 1953/54 and 1955/56 seasons and for Barça in the 1954/55 and 1956/57 campaign. Dissatisfied with the ruling, the Catalan club eventually chose to sell their rights to the player to their arch-rivals. Don Alfredo duly went on to forge a legend with Los Blancos, later being voted the greatest player in their history.
While Barça may continue to rue the outcome of the Di Stefano saga, La Banda Sangre have their own little tale of regret. “In the end it didn’t happen, but it is true that the possibility did come about, when I was very young,” commented Lionel Messi in a recent interview with FIFA.com, reflecting on the opportunity he once had to play for River.
It all came about in 2000, when the then 12-year-old Leo travelled from his home town of Rosario for a trial with River. After putting the gifted youngster through his paces for four days, club scout and former Millonario player Vaio advised the River directors to get him to sign a contract without delay, having seen in him a mix of Omar Sivori and Diego Maradona.
There was to be no deal, however, the official reason for which has never come to light, be it the club’s reluctance to pay for hormone treatment, or the refusal of the player’s parents to leave him at the club’s lodgings unless they offered them a house and a job. A few months later, La Pulga put pen to paper for Barça. The rest, as they say, is history.
Part of any club’s identity lies in its shirt. It is hard to imagine Barcelona running out in anything other than their blue and garnet stripes or River Plate doing likewise without their diagonal red band. And yet there was one occasion on which the Argentinians had to do just that. It came in August 1980, when Los Millonarios arrived at the Camp Nou to contest a third-place match in the Trofeo Joan Gamper, a pre-season friendly tournament.
Their opponents that day were the similarly-shirted PSV Eindhoven, with the competition’s organisers requesting that the South Americans change their jersey to avoid a colour clash. Having travelled with their habitual first kit only, River were thus obliged to wear a change strip provided by tournament hosts Barcelona.
Yet as fate would have it, the River players did not look too unfamiliar. The yellow top they wore against their Dutch opponents just happened to feature a diagonal stripe, albeit in the Barça colours of blue and garnet.
The mutual admiration society
Marcelo Gallardo was 35 when he called time on his career with Nacional of Montevideo in March 2011. Giving his view on the modern game, the playmaker told FIFA.com at the time: “Football’s changed but not for the better. Players run more but play less. Football should be about giving the ball to a team-mate to create chances, and that should never change.”
Heaping praise on Barcelona for their stylish approach to the game, El Muñeco (“The Doll”) added: “Thank God for Barcelona. They’ve shown that football is still football and that when you bring talented players together, amazing things can happen. I love watching them.” Now the coach of River, he is about to see what they can do at close hand.
The admiration felt by Gallardo is reciprocated, as Barça defender Gerard Pique explained in an interview in June: “I watch Argentinian football a lot, and River had a great season last year. Masche (Javier Mascherano) is always talking about River, and thanks to him, we’re all fans of the club.”
Indeed, Pique is such a fan that he has passed on his appreciation for the Argentinian outfit to his three-year-old son Milan, who puts in regular appearances on social media proudly sporting a River top.