The earliest arrivals camped out in the street for two whole days, while others massed behind them to form a queue that stretched for a kilometre, oblivious to the cold of winter in Buenos Aires as they stood for 12 long hours.
The purpose of the exercise was to buy a ticket for a football match. Though as these diehard fans of San Lorenzo de Almagro will tell you, the match in question is no ordinary occasion, not when it is the second leg of the final of the Copa Libertadores, a trophy their club has been obsessed with winning for a long, long time.
“I’ve been waiting for this game all my life,” San Lorenzo’s talismanic 33-year-old midfielder Leandro Romagnoli told FIFA.com, summing up the importance of Wednesday’s return leg. Those words reflect the feelings of the club’s devoted supporters and highlight the fact that there is no side in Argentina as determined to win the Libertadores as San Lorenzo.
It is a determination fired by both a burning desire for glory and a need to set an old and unwanted record straight, namely that of San Lorenzo being the only member of Argentinian football’s so-called “big five” never to have won the famous competition. In a country where rival fans like nothing better than to mock each other in the stands, the absence of such an important piece of silverware from the trophy cabinet makes San Lorenzo an easy target for their taunting opponents.
“We’ve been waiting many years to play this final and you can feel the anxiety and the nervousness of the fans. I feel exactly the same way as they do,” explained Romagnoli, who added that he had dreamed many times of winning the Copa since he first pulled on the azulgrana shirt at the age of seven.
Twice a league champion with the club – in 2001 and 2013 – and a winner of the Copa Mercosur in 2001 and the Copa Sudamericana a year later, the No10 is now facing the biggest challenge of his career.
“The Mercosur and the Sudamericana were very important trophies, but the Libertadores is the one the fans really want,” he said. “For me, winning it would be like lifting the World Cup. It means that much to the club. I never had the chance to play in the World Cup and that’s exactly how I’m looking at it.”
A life in claret and blue
Romagnoli owes his nickname of Pipi to his little sister Natalia, who called him that on account of her inability as a three-year-old to say “Leandro”. He also owes his lifelong support of his club to his mother Rita, a Ciclón fanatic, much to the chagrin of his father Atilio, a fan and former player of Huracan, San Lorenzo’s long-standing rivals.
“I became a San Lorenzo man because of my mum and my uncle, who took me to games when I was a little boy,” recalled Romagnoli. He showcased his talent for the game with local side Franja de Oro, regularly attracting large crowds and on one occasion – or so the story goes – scoring such an amazing goal that an elderly spectator was moved to make his way back to the turnstile to demand that he pay for his ticket again.
Romagnoli joined San Lorenzo at the age of ten, making his way steadily up through the youth ranks before being promoted to the first team as a 17-year-old by Oscar Ruggeri in 1998.
A series of winners’ medals then came his way, including one for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Argentina 2001, though injuries also dogged his career, with the player rupturing knee ligaments on two occasions.
In 2004 Romagnoli moved to Mexico, and from there on to Portugal, before returning to the club closest to his heart. The feeling is mutual, for one very simple reason, as he explained: “I’ve been with the club for a long time and I’ve played for them at every level. I won the league with them and had my worst times with them. I think the fans value that. I’m very grateful to them.”
Those “worst times” came in 2012, when El Cuervo were on the verge of being relegated for the second time in their history. Though their fate was out of their hands as the end of the season neared, Romagnoli inspired a timely revival, with results elsewhere going their way to safeguard their top-flight status.
Reflecting on that brush with disaster in an interview with the magazine El Gráfico, the No10 said: “That was my hardest time and San Lorenzo’s. We knew we had to turn the situation around and that we couldn’t afford to slip up. The senior players had a meeting and I said a few things that I'd prefer remained between those of us there.”
A change for the better
A dramatic change in fortunes came in September 2012, when Marcelo Tinelli, a famous TV presenter and san Lorenzo’s current vice-president, took charge of the club.
“The squad was totally overhauled and there were a lot of changes made in terms of the financial and sporting set-up,” said Romagnoli. “We’ve all done our bit to help San Lorenzo get out of the situation they were in. They’re now back where they belong.”
League champions late in 2013 with Juan Antonio Pizzi in charge, El Ciclón are now close to completing the biggest quest of all under his replacement Edgardo Bauza. For the fans, it is all quite a turnaround from two years ago, when the club’s escape from relegation brought tears of joy. Come Wednesday night, they could be celebrating for an entirely different reason.
In reaching the Libertadores final, San Lorenzo have – not untypically – done it the hard way, scraping through the group phase thanks to a goal scored four minutes from time in their final game against Botafogo, and advancing to the knockout rounds with the second-worst record of the 16 qualifiers.
“We didn’t get off to the best start but we improved,” said Romagnoli, who pointed to coach Bauza as the man responsible for their development: “He showed us that the Copa requires a different type of football to the national league.”
The final is finely poised after last week’s 1-1 draw in the first leg in Asuncion. Should San Lorenzo go on to finish the job at home, the party will be a memorable one, albeit tinged with a little sadness in Romagnoli’s case.
“I’ve signed a contract (with Brazilian club Bahia) and I have to go,” he explained. “I’m a man of my word and I have to honour the agreement. My aim is to return, though, and to retire here.”
Asked if he might be back in time to play at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014, should San Lorenzo qualify, Romagnoli signed off by saying: “That would be in December, which is still a little way off. I’ve got a contract in Brazil, but you never know. We’ll see.”