Back in December 1981 the then Estudiantes coach Carlos Bilardo made the long journey to England to talk to Leeds United's Argentinian exile Alejandro Sabella. Though the player was perhaps dreaming of a move to River Plate, the club where he learned his art as a boy, he found Bilardo's offer of a return home to good to turn down.
Little would he have imagined, however, that almost 28 years later he would coach El Pincha to the Copa Libertadores de America title, the fourth in their illustrious history.
A sweet left foot
Born in Buenos Aires, Alejandro Javier Sabella made his league debut for River Plate at the age of 20, having climbed his way up the youth ranks despite his small stature and perceived lack of pace, a drawback that led to him being nicknamed Pachorra (Slowcoach). What Sabella did not lack, however, was a magical left foot and the ability to make the game look easy, shaking off markers with a simple feint and laying the ball off for a team-mate.
Unfortunately for the silky midfielder, he just happened to be fighting for a place in the River line-up with Norberto Alonso, one of the biggest idols in Millonario history. Despite helping the club to two metropolitan titles in 1975 and 1977 and a national league championship in 1975 and then appearing on the losing side in the Copa Libertadores final against Cruzeiro two years later, he failed to hold down a regular first-team slot. And so, when Sheffield United made an offer for him in 1978 Pachorra decided to try his luck across the Atlantic.
Adapting to the hustle and bustle of the English game was no easy task and though Sabella spared no effort he found it hard to string consistent performances together. Mindful that the Argentinian was struggling to settle down in a strange land, Bilardo made his move, having kept tabs on the talented midfielder for some time. "The club didn't have any money but I managed to get a few dollars together and made the journey," recalls the former Argentina coach. "I convinced the directors it was a good deal but I had to borrow money from Sabella to pay for the trip home."
A talented unit
A member of the side that won three Copa Libertadores and one Copa Intercontinental in the late 1960s, Bilardo's status as a Pincharrata legend was already secure, and he returned home from Yorkshire intent on restoring Estudiantes' lost mystique and catapulting them back to the top. "That's what he said and it was good enough for me," comments Sabella.
The new recruit would form part of a legendary midfield quartet along with Marcelo Trobbiani, Jose Daniel Ponce and Miguel Angel Russo, and it was not long before Bilardo's dreams started to come to fruition, with El Pincha winning the metropolitan title in 1982 and adding the Argentinian league crown a year later.
All that was missing was the Copa Libertadores. They came close in 1983 but finished second in the three-team semi-final group behind eventual champions Gremio of Brazil. The key game in that campaign came against the Brazilians in La Plata. El León came back from 3-1 down despite having four men sent off, one of them Sabella, but were held to a draw that ultimately ended their hopes.
Ironically Pachorra moved to Gremio in 1985 but returned to Estudiantes two years afterwards. And though he later ran out for Ferro Carril Oeste, where he announced his retirement in 1988, Sabella continued to live in La Plata, his links with the club remaining as strong as ever.
A lucky brown jacket
After calling time on his playing career Sabella turned his attention to coaching, working as Daniel Passarella's right-hand man for a number of clubs between 1990 and 2007, namely River Plate in two separate spells, Parma, Monterrey of Mexico and Corinthians of Brazil. The two also worked in tandem during stints with Argentina and Uruguay.
Sabella decided to go it alone in November 2007, biding his time and waiting for the right job to come along. It duly arrived in March 2009 when his beloved Estudiantes asked him to take over from Leonardo Astrada and help the team recover from a poor start in the Argentinian league and the Libertadores. Although an avid Pincha watcher, many doubted whether he had the necessary experience and stature to turn the club's fortunes around.
Sabella's debut came in a 4-0 Libertadores win at home to Deportivo Quito on 19 March, the prelude to a title-winning run of seven victories in ten games, three of them away, and three draws. In the process they scored 14 goals and conceded just two. To cap it all, the newly installed coach also conjured up a domestic turnaround, taking his charges from second-bottom in the Apertura standings to sixth place.
A symbol of Sabella's success was the brown jacket he sported for that debut appearance against Quito, a garment he would don at every game for the rest of the season. "Bilardo told me I would have to give it to him if we finished champions, which is what I did," he said after Wednesday's 2-1 triumph. "He's got to hand it back to me for the Club World Cup though."
Modesty is Sabella's watchword, as his post-match comments reveal. "It's all down to the players. Someone should put up a monument to them. All I did was help them reach the final and tell them to go out and do what I never could as a player." But when it was pointed out to him that he too would go into the club's record books, the reluctant hero finally accepted his share of the praise. "Olympus is where the gods gather together and it's true: we'll all be in the Estudiantes' Olympus now."