Having been few people’s favourites to reach the latter stages of the 2010 Copa Libertadores de America, Universidad de Chile have stormed all the way to the semi-finals and, following their 1-1 first-leg draw away to Mexico’s Guadalajara, are now just 90 minutes away from their first ever appearance in the final of Latin America’s biggest club competition.
“You get so few opportunities to play at this stage of the competition that it’s already historic,” was the verdict of Los Azules veteran Rafael Olarra, scorer of his side’s vital away goal in the Mexican capital. “That’s why we get excited just thinking about the final. It’s something we’ve been aiming at for so long and it’s now within touching distance. It’d be fantastic to go all the way, both for us and the fans of La U,” added the defender in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
“If we’d been offered a 1-1 draw before the first leg, particularly as Chivas virtually killed off their two previous knockout ties at home, we’d have taken it,” said the 32-year-old, with the experience that a 14-year professional career brings. “That’s why I’ll admit that we picked up a great result over there, but nothing’s decided yet.”
And what does El Sheriff, who took his first steps on the footballing ladder at modest outfit Audax Italiano and is now in his third spell with Universidad de Chile, think is the recipe for his team’s success? “We’re a down-to-earth, hard-working and well-balanced side, and we’re aware that the best way to defend is through the hard graft of all 11 players. Attacking-wise we’re astute enough to vary our approach depending on what we need from the game, while we're able to adapt very well to different opponents’ styles and come out on top at the end.”
Element of surprise
Yet despite their undoubted talent and impressive team ethic, Rafa refused to condemn those who continue to tag his side as Libertadores outsiders. “We’ve even surprised ourselves a bit, but we’ve also worked really hard. At the start of a competition this big you always dream of going as far as you possibly can and, while I understand a lot of people can’t get their heads around what we’ve done, inside we were all determined to improve on our performances at previous international tournaments.”
Indeed, the rugged centre-back believes Universidad’s campaigns in the 2009 Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana had an important role to play in this year’s run to the last four. Los Azules were only edged out by eventual finalists Cruzeiro and Fluminense in the Round of 16 and quarter-finals of the Libertadores and Sudamericana respectively.
“Among other things, both those tournaments taught us how to play away from home and we’re currently unbeaten on our travels. No other Chilean side have had such a good away record,” said Olarra, whose team is on a run of eight away matches without defeat in all continental competitions, a sequence which stretches back to last year’s Copa Sudamericana.
“This team has another quality: we’ve learned from our mistakes and we know you can’t bank on getting a particular result on home soil. That’s why, despite it being 1-1 (on aggregate), we’ll go out to win the game against Chivas,” continued the Chilean international, who has appeared in two FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaigns with La Roja and won bronze at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Sydney 2000.
“A 0-0 draw is no good for them though, so I imagine they’ll be gunning for a positive result too. We’ll need to use our brains, take advantage of any nerves they have, take control of the match and do what we need to progress.”
Chasing rivals’ record
In business-like mood ahead of 3 August’s semi-final second leg in Santiago, Olarra was also keen to play down any possible point-scoring with domestic rivals Colo Colo, who in 1991 became the first and so far only Chilean side to win the coveted Copa: “In football you’re always striving to do better than what’s been done before. Chilean football can’t rest on the laurels of a feat achieved nearly 20 years ago. There are even some Colo Colo fans who’d be pleased to see La U win the Libertadores.”
“Every sporting achievement is important not just for the sport itself but for the nation as a whole. It’s been a tough year for Chile and football can give people a boost, something which our country needs,” continued Olarra, referring to the devastating earthquake which hit Chile earlier this year. “So, if we’re able to play our small part in giving everyone a lift, the excitement you feel becomes something even more special.”
And finally, does the inspirational skipper believe Universidad de Chile have what it takes to claim the Libertadores crown and with it a spot at the FIFA Club World Cup 2010? “If you don’t dare to dream then you won’t get anywhere.
"We’re so near yet so far from our goal. It’s near because we’re three matches from winning the Copa, but it’s far because of the teams standing in our way. We’ve just go to stay humble and give it our best shot and whether we make it or not, what happens will happen. Tuesday’s match could be the key and we want to take full advantage.”