“I’m 36 now, and if I could go back and speak to the kid that once dreamed of playing in a Copa Libertadores final with Penarol, I’d say to him: ‘You went and did it, boy.’” The words are those of Dario Rodriguez, the captain and talisman of that famous old club about to take part in its tenth Libertadores final and first in 24 long years.
The Montevideo giants have won five of those showpieces, the last of them in 1987, when Rodriguez was a mere 13-year-old. “I can remember it as if it was yesterday,” the man they call El Negro told FIFA.com, not without emotion in his voice. “There weren’t that many colour TVs around back then and I went to see the third game against America de Cali at my late uncle’s house. When Diego [Aguirre], our current coach, scored the winner in the last minute of extra-time, I ran out into the street and hopped on to a passing lorry with some friends to go and celebrate in the centre of Montevideo.”
Rodriguez made his professional debut in 1992 with the unfashionable Sudamerica. A spell in Mexico followed, before a return home to join Bella Vista and then his beloved Aurinegros in 1999. In what was his first stint with the club, the commanding and versatile defender won a league title and a place in the Uruguay squad for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, scoring a goal against Denmark ranked by The Times as the fourth-best in the history of the competition. “That’s an exaggeration,” he said, laughing.
Then came a move to Europe and Bundesliga side Schalke. In a six-season stay with the Gelsenkirchen club, Rodriguez won two Intertoto Cups and a DFB-Pokal before heading back to Uruguay with the aim of winning more titles with the team closest to his heart. At the time, however, Penarol were in the doldrums.
“Back then you just couldn’t imagine the club going as far as it has now," he admitted. "I see myself as one of football’s workers, and in this game, unless you’re one of the chosen few, you’re spend more time picking yourself up off the floor than you do being on top. That’s why I really try and savour the moment and enjoy what I’m doing.”
Despite their lofty status in South American football and their league championship win in 2010, Penarol’s run to the Libertadores final has come as a surprise to many. “We’ve been working hard and dreaming of getting this far,” said Rodriguez, who scored the winner in the first leg of their semi-final tie against Velez Sarsfield.
“Deep down we knew we could have a good tournament, even after we lost 3-0 to Independiente right at the start. One of the great things about this team, though, is the fact that we manage to get up whenever we fall down and work our way out of tough situations. A lot of people thought we were out when we only drew with Inter at home, but we went to Brazil and knocked them out.”
Though aware that not everyone finds Penarol’s style easy on the eye, it is something that does not concern him in the slightest: “We know very well what we can and can’t do. We’ve got people on the bench like Fabian Estoyanoff, Antonio Pacheco, Fabian Carini and Jonathan Urretaviscaya, all of whom would be getting first-team football at other clubs. That just goes to show that the people in the starting XI are doing their job, and that we have plenty of options in the squad.”
Turning his thoughts to the final against Santos, Rodriguez had this to say: “They’re a typical Brazilian team who are very good on the ball and always look to attack. Neymar is in terrific form and he’s making things happen every time he gets possession. Ganso is a great player too and it’s good for us that he’ll miss the first leg. And then there’s Elano, who’s good in dead-ball situations and sets the tempo really well. There are a few weak points we can exploit too, though. Obviously we respect them, but that’s only until the referee blows his whistle.”
Although 19 years at the highest level might seem like a long time, Rodriguez is not yet thinking about retirement, especially with a place at the FIFA Club World Cup beckoning: “Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to play Barcelona, one of the greatest teams of all time? The key thing is to keep your mind set on your objectives though. We’ve got 180 really tough minutes coming up against Santos, and what matters right now is to win the first 90 in Montevideo.”
Though most of his thoughts are taken up by Santos at the moment, Rodriguez still finds time to dream, just as he did all those years ago as a wide-eyed teenager: “We know that only one team can taste glory," he said. "Every time we have our pre-match get-togethers at Los Aromos (Penarol’s training complex) we look at the photos of the teams that won the Copa. And if you ask me, I’d like nothing better than to have our photo up there alongside them in 20 years’ time.”