It was just after midday local time on Saturday 11 July when a crowd of about 200 Estudiantes supporters appeared at the main entrance to their club’s training ground at City Bell. The players had just completed their final open practice session before heading for Brazil, and were surprised to see their exit blocked by a huge crowd of passionate fans wearing the team's red and white colours.
The friendly 'invasion' was a timely show of support for the team ahead of the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final in Belo Horizonte, where awaiting them will be a Cruzeiro side high on confidence after coming away with a 0-0 draw in Argentina. But these fans are oblivious to talk of favourites as they chant out in unison, 'We’re gonna bring the cup home!'
Can they do it?
"Of course we can do it. We know it’ll be difficult, but they must be concerned too as it won’t be easy to beat Estudiantes. The 0-0 draw in the first leg wasn’t a bad result as it means that we're still well capable of winning the tie," said Christian Cellay. And though only a Pincha player since 2008, the defender is one of several squad members who have managed to win over fans with his hard work and dedication.
His defensive companion Rolando Schiava pointed out that Cruzeiro may be a little too confident after their goalless draw in La Plata. "Let’s hope they’re already celebrating, as it'll be to our advantage," he said. "We've shown we’re a hard team to beat, regardless of the opposition. We’ve got this far by remaining level-headed, so we’ve got to take that into the game in Brazil. There are no foregone conclusions – all that matters is what happens on the pitch."
Another ‘outsider’ who has managed to win the hearts of the Pincha faithful is Rodrigo Brana, as evidenced by the loud cheers that greet his name when the line-up is announced at the Estadio Unico. "We’re keeping calm as there are still 90 minutes to play and the pressure of playing at home may count against them. That said, the fact that we didn’t win at home doesn’t give us much room for manoeuvre: we have to play intelligent football and take any chances we get," said the 30-year-old.
For forward Gaston Fernandez, one of Estudiantes’s most in-form players, the team’s state of mind will be just as important as their footballing skills in tomorrow's game. "We’re confident of what we can achieve. We’re playing well, with a clear game plan and a common goal. But as Alejandro [Sabella, their coach] says, now more than ever we’ve got to give absolutely everything we've got," he warned.
Fans united behind their team
Saturday's display of unbridled passion outside the Pincha camp was reflected at the ticket offices, as the 3,000 tickets assigned to away fans at the Mineirao stadium were quickly snapped up. "Why am I so sure we’re going to be champions? Because this team have already shown that they can beat any opposition on any ground. It’s going to be tough, but we’ll get the job done in the end," said Rodrigo, who is sporting a jacket, scarf and cap with the club crest and has just got an autograph from Mariano Andujar.
A few meters away, a girl of about 18 excitedly shows her friend a photo she has just managed to get with Leandro Benitez. "El Chino comes in for a lot of criticism but he was born here and loves the club. In Brazil he’ll show them all just how committed he is," she declared, while a nine-year-old boy listens on before adding: "We're better off putting in high crosses as if we're accurate enough we can win with aerial superiority."
Meanwhile, a man with many more years on the clock has also braved the cold to greet the players, a pullover visible under his Estudiantes shirt with Juan Sebastian Veron’s No11 on the back. As he paces up and down, he can be heard singing: "Pincharrata, sos mi enfermedad, cada día, yo te quiero más... le pido a los jugadores, la vida por los colores, lo único que quiero es ver al Pincha campeón de la Libertadores...” (Pincharrata, you're my weakness but every day I love you more... I ask the players to die for these colours, because all I want is the Libertadores...)
They say that faith can move mountains, and with such devoted fans behind them, Estudiantes will be hoping that it can win football matches as well.