If you had to choose two words to sum up Leandro Desabato’s long journey to Abu Dhabi with Estudiantes, they would have to be 'commitment' and 'perseverance'. It is an odyssey that has seen him go from being surplus to requirements at the club at the start of the decade to becoming a cornerstone of the side that will face Korea Republic’s Pohang Steelers in the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009.
“Given all I’ve gone through in my career, this would have been unimaginable a few years ago. But here am I now at the biggest tournament there is for a club footballer,” said Desabato, who spoke exclusively to FIFA.com from his hotel in Abu Dhabi. The story of how this central defender came full circle with El Pincha is a fascinating one.
Born in Cafferata, Santa Fe, on 24 January 1979, Desabato established himself in the Estudiantes youth ranks from an early age. Not being a La Plata native, the youngster spent much of teenage years living in the club’s lodgings at their old stadium. There he was steeped in club’s rich history and came to dream of emulating the heroes who had helped El Leon sweep all before them in South America in the late 1960 and claim domestic titles in the early 1980s.
Yet, despite making his full debut in 1997, when still 18, El Chavo was unable to hold down a regular first-team place and began what was to be a long spell away from his alma mater. “In 2001 I was loaned out to Olimpo, then in the second division, and I helped them get promoted to the top flight," he explained.
"No sooner was I back at El Pincha than I was loaned out again, this time to Quilmes, who were also in the Nacional B, and once again we got promotion. Things went well enough there and even included a Libertadores campaign in 2005. The following year, I was sold to Argentinos, where I showed that with continuity I could play an important role."
His moment of vindication would finally arrive in 2007, when Estudiantes moved to bring him back to La Plata. “I was joining a very strong team that had won the league title only months before and had lofty ambitions. That was when I finally established myself at the club,” he recalled without the slightest trace of rancour.
With his impressive aerial ability and intelligent defending, the left-footed player was a key figure in the Estudiantes side who were in the running for the 2008 Clausura until the final day, finished runners-up in the same year’s Copa Sudamericana and won this season’s Copa Libertadores. Furthermore, he is now vice-captain to Sebastian Veron, and his importance to the team is underlined by the fact that he will start against Pohang Steelers despite a lingering problem with his right leg.
Desabato watched the South Koreans during their quarter-final win over TP Mazembe and was duly impressed. “They’re tough opponents, play good football and run forever," he said. "You can see the influence of their Brazilian coach, who’s given them a clear identity: the two full-backs like to get forward, tactically they look very disciplined and you can see moves they’ve worked on in training. It will be far from easy.”
In spite of that, El Chavo is confident of his own squad’s ability. “This is an intelligent group, so we know games like this don’t come along very often," he said. "We’re fully focused and know that underestimating our opponents would be a huge mistake. We’re also aware that anything less than 100 per cent could spell disaster, but if we play like we did during the Libertadores, we’ll be in with a good chance."
Nor does the defender shy away from discussing a potential decider against Barcelona, even he does consider it from an interesting angle. “Marking players like (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic or (Thierry) Henry is certainly an appealing prospect. You’re always looking to measure yourself and that would be a very stiff test. Moreover, it would be an ideal opportunity to see if there’s much of a difference between Argentinian and European football.”
Desabato brings our interview to a close with a cautious statement of his side’s aspirations for UAE 2009. “The goal is to take the club as far as possible," he added. "Having seen what winning the Libertadores meant to the Estudiantes, I shudder to think what lifting the Club World Cup would mean. But whatever happens, we want to be able to look each other in the eye afterwards and say we gave it everything.”