“Yes, Penarol are back.” Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, Carbonero coach Diego Aguirre is in no doubt that the Uruguayan giants are in business once more after an unduly lean spell by their standards.
Aguirre has been one of the prime movers in their domestic and continental resurgence, which has seen them advance to their first Copa Libertadores semi-final in 24 years, a remarkably long absence for a side that has won the competition five times in all and is the third most successful club in its history.
The coach has probably felt that absence more than anyone. After all it was his goal in the final minute of extra-time that gave Penarol a 1-0 victory over America de Cali in a play-off in the 1987 final, their last triumph in the competition.
“Penarol is one of the biggest clubs in the Copa,” he says with the conviction you would expect of someone nicknamed La Fiera (The Beast). “The club has been a sleeping giant but now it’s roused itself. I don’t know how far we can go, but history demands that we aim as high as we can.”
That soubriquet is an appropriate one. In his playing days Aguirre was an all-action striker who won three Uruguayan league winners’ medals with Los Aurinegros and earned the lasting devotion of the fans in doing so. Then, in his first year back at the club as coach in 2003, he won the championship, thwarting rivals Nacional’s hopes of a fourth straight title.
A barren run of six years then followed, equalling the worst spell in Penarol’s history, only for Aguirre the saviour to return in 2009 and steer them to their 37th league crown the following year, a triumph made all the sweeter by victory over Nacional in the play-off final.
An enduring love affair
That title win cemented Penarol’s position as the most successful side in Uruguay, with six more championships to their name than El Bolso. It also secured them a place in the Copa Libertadores, a trophy they first lifted in its inaugural year in 1960 and again in 1961, 1966 and 1982, when they also went on to win the three Intercontinental Cups in their possession.
“I’m a firm believer in motivation, and I always draw on history, the jersey and the difficulties other players who have worn it have had to overcome,” explains the 45-year-old. “We have a responsibility and we have to see ourselves as winners, even if we don’t win.”
Winning is something Penarol had lost the habit of doing. While no other club has made more appearances in the Libertadores than Los Aurinegros, prior to this season they had failed on their five previous attempts to negotiate the group phase of the competition. Aguirre was in charge for two of those failed campaigns, though he has more than made up for it this time by guiding the team to the last four. In the process Penarol have set a new record for the most number of wins in the competition’s history and the most number of goals scored. And should they overcome Velez Sarsfield over the next few days, they will appear in an unprecedented tenth final, overtaking Boca Juniors at the top of that particular table.
As far as their proud coach is concerned there are several reasons for their stirring run to the semis: “Bags of character, team spirit and a desire to take the initiative," he smiled. "We’ve recovered from a slow start and won the games that mattered. The sweetest win was against Internacional in Porto Alegre, where they hadn’t lost since 1993. We defied logic that day. They were the favourites to win and with good reason too. They were the defending champions, they were at home in the second leg and they’ve got some great players. But Penarol showed how great they are and recorded another of their historic wins.”
The job in hand
Despite that surprise success in the last 16 and the quarter-final defeat of Universidad Catolica, which involved another decisive victory on the road, Aguirre is refusing to talk his team up as favourites. “That would be disrespectful on my part,” he says. “There are some strong teams left in the competition and I don’t feel we’re one of the favourites. The thing is, though, anything can happen in the semis, and I’m not just saying that.”
As fate would have it, Velez are coached by Ricardo Gareca, who played in three consecutive Libertadores finals for America de Cali in the mid-1980s and lost the lot, including the 1987 showpiece against Penarol.
“I can’t speak about that game now but I can talk about Velez, the best team around at the moment,” says Aguirre. “Maybe they didn’t start the competition that well, but they knocked out Liga de Quito and Libertad easily, which was a bit surprising. That’s why we’re up against logic here again. That doesn’t mean to say we can’t beat them, but we know who we’re facing.”
Despite his obvious caution, Aguirre signs off on a confident note: “Of course we can win the title. I’ve dreamt about it before and I’m dreaming about it now, and I’m not going to change. I’ve every respect for the other teams, that goes without saying, but how could I not think about achieving something big with this club? That’s what its history is all about.”