For the first time since its inception, the FIFA Club World Cup will not feature a Brazilian side. The team responsible for that are Boca Juniors of Argentina, who proved too good for Gremio of Porto Alegre in the final of the 2007 Copa Libertadores de America.
The Argentinians are fast becoming household names to the football-mad Japanese public. Boca have landed four of their six Copa Libertadores crowns in the last seven years, and the pilgrimage to the Land of the Rising Sun has virtually become an annual event for the Buenos Aires giants. Argentina's most popular side also seem to enjoy their trips to Tokyo, beating Real Madrid in 2000 and Carlo Ancelotti's AC Milan in 2003, while their only defeat in recent years came against Bayern Munich in 2001.
Boca will be having another crack at intercontinental glory in the Far East this December thanks to their superb display against the Tricolor Gaúcho in this year's Libertadores final, winning both legs without conceding a single goal, an achievement matched only by domestic rivals Estudiantes when they defeated Uruguay's Nacional in 1969.
Central to the success of Miguel Angel Russo's side was a fine blend of youthful and more-seasoned players, led by the now-departed Juan Roman Riquelme.
The ever-reliable Mauricio Caranta played a starring role between the posts. The keeper's task was made easier by a solid backline expertly marshalled by Hugo Ibarra, who claimed his fourth Libertadores winner's medal in four attempts, and also featuring Daniel Diaz and Claudio Morel Rodriguez. In midfield the zip and urgency of the young Ever Banega caught the eye, as did Neri Cardozo and Pablo Ledesma, while Martin Palermo and Rodrigo Palacio struck up a fearsome strike partnership.
Now, four years on from their last title in Japan, fate will bring the Xeneizes face to face with the Rossoneri once more. Could that be a sign that one of the most successful outfits on the planet are about to strike gold yet again?
The road to Japan
After failing to qualify for South America's blue riband club competition in 2006, the pressure was on Boca to produce the goods when they returned to the fray this season. After throwing away the Argentinian Clausura Championship to Estudiantes following an inexplicable end-of-season dip in form, the boys from the Bombonera were anxious for redemption.
The man who would lead them there was Miguel Angel Russo, who had been brought in to replace Ricardo La Volpe, the outgoing Mexican taking up the position Russo had vacated at Velez Sarsfield.
Boca began their title assault in Group 7 alongside Cienciano of Peru, Mexico's Toluca and Bolivar of La Paz. While far from their best, they did enough to slip into second position behind the Mexicans, securing their place with a last-day 7-0 demolition of the Bolivians. As soon as the knockout stages came around, however, Russo's charges showed their appetite for a fight remained as keen as ever.
Velez Sarsfield, Paraguayan outfit Libertad and finally Cucuta Deportivo of Colombia all came close to ousting the future champions, only for the Argentinians to call upon their experience and firepower and secure a berth in the final. Facing them there were tournament revelations Gremio, who knocked out compatriots Santos in the semis.
A masterly 3-0 first leg win in front of a heaving Bombonera virtually assured Boca their sixth Copa Libertadores title. And they duly confirmed their superiority a week later in Porto Alegre to cap a 5-0 aggregate win.
Goal king Palermo
The inimitable Martin Palermo will be, without a doubt, Boca's main goal threat at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007. Born in La Plata on 7 November 1973, the man who has come to be known affectionately as 'El Loco' began playing in the youth teams at Estudiantes and made his first-team debut in 1992.
The tall striker was snapped up by Boca Juniors in 1997 and helped the side to three domestic titles in his first three years, a Copa Libertadores and an Intercontinental Cup (both in 2000). After a few unsuccessful seasons in Spain with Alaves, Betis and Villarreal, Palermo returned to Boca in 2004, scoring bags of goals to help the club to two more domestic titles and five more on the international stage.
Taking full advantage of his 1.87m height, Palermo is a master in the art of heading but it is his peculiar ability to find the net so often that inspired former coach Carlos Bianchi to describe him as a 'goal optimist'. In 1998 he finished top scorer in the Apertura with 20 goals in 19 matches, a record that stands still in Argentina. He is currently seeking another milestone: to become Boca Juniors' all-time top scorer.
The man in charge
At the age of 51, Miguel Angel Russo joined the highly select band of coaches who have guided the Buenos Aires powerhouses to the summit of continental football, a privileged club previously comprising just two members, the legendary Juan Carlos Lorenzo and Carlos Bianchi. And this in his first six months at the club.
Born on 9 April 1956 in the south of Buenos Aires Province, he spent his entire playing career as a defensive midfielder with Estudiantes de La Plata, making his debut in 1975 before retiring 13 years later. By this time he had already shown his tactical appreciation of the game, and it came as no surprise then when he decided to go into the exciting but highly stressful world of football management.
He masterminded three promotions to the Argentinian first division, two with Lanus and one with his beloved Estudiantes, before trying his luck abroad, taking the reins at Salamanca in Spain, Morelia in Mexico, and Universidad de Chile, who he guided to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores in 1996.
He returned home in 1999, settling into the hot-seat at Colon of Santa Fe, before moving back to Lanus and then on to Rosario Central and Velez Sarsfield. He steered the Liniers-based outfit to the 2005 Clausura, but left in December 2006 to take over from Ricardo La Volpe at Boca. His arrival brought a glowing reference from one Diego Maradona: "I love Basile very much, but Russo is the right man for this club," said Boca's favourite son. And events have proved him to be right, so far at least, with Russo compensating for disappointment in the 2007 Clausura with a victorious charge to the Copa title.
A little history
The club officially came into being on 3 April 1905 following a meeting between five friends from La Boca - a dockside immigrant suburb backing on to the River Plate.Esteban Baglietto, Alfredo Scarpatti, Santiago Sana and brothers Juan and Teodoro Farengawere the men in question and between them they founded an institution that reflected the indomitable spirit of a neighbourhood where the game was played with makeshift balls made of rags and rubber.
The new club took its name directly from the suburb, although the word 'Juniors' was added to lend an English flavour and a cachet that was somewhat at odds with the unappealing reputation the area had at the time.
The colours of the Boca jersey changed over the years, and legend has it that the original pink shirt was quickly replaced by one featuring black and white stripes. The club adopted its famous blue and gold colours in 1907 when one of its members espied the Swedish flag perched on a boat moored in the port. The distinctive design has since been described by Maradona as "the most beautiful jersey in the world".
Known as Los Xeneizes (the Genoese), Boca fans proudly claim to bela mitad más uno(half plus one),a reference to the legions of supporters the club has the length and breadth of the country. One of the most iconic symbols of their allegiance is La Bombonera, the stadium that stands in the very heart of the suburb.Its reputation speaks for itself and the pitch is said to move when the stadium is packed to the rafters. Boca diehards have another way of describing its cauldron-like atmosphere, though: 'La Bombonera doesn't shake, it beats.'
Boca Juniors' haul of domestic honours is second only to eternal cross-town rivals River Plate, although the club'srecent exploits on the international stage have given it the biggest profile of any Argentinian side in world football.
|RUSSO Miguel Angel|