Almeyda, the lionheart of River Plate
© AFP

The story of how veteran Matias Almeyda came out of retirement to star for River Plate in Argentina's 2010 Apertura is a truly inspirational one.

Thirty-seven is an age when the vast majority of footballers have already turned their hands to alternative occupations, going into coaching, taking a more relaxing seat upstairs in an executive role or representing their fellow professionals.

Evergreen midfielder Matias Almeyda is no ordinary 37-year-old, however, and he celebrated his birthday on Tuesday by signing a six-month extension to his contract with River Plate, the latest port of call in a distinguished career full of landmarks.

The first of those was his 1997 transfer from River Plate to Sevilla for over $9 million, then an Argentinian record. From there the hard-working Almeyda went on to earn the adulation of the tifosi at Lazio, Parma and Inter Milan, to name but three of his clubs, and also represented his country at two FIFA World Cup™ finals: France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002.

What is perhaps less well-known is that Almeyda had to battle with depression after retiring in 2005. Gradually feeling his way back into football, he then signed up for the Showbol veterans football tournament before making an unexpected return to the top flight with Los Millonarios.

Uncertain times
“My idea was to do some farming, and I didn’t think I was going to have a hard time dealing with retirement,” said Almeyda, explaining the personal problems he endured after giving up the game. “I was wrong, though. When you stop playing your dreams evaporate. I went through a phase when I only ever went out to pick my children up from school. I suffered panic attacks and there were times when I felt like I was going to die.”

The turning point came when his eldest daughter drew a picture of him at school, a picture that took his nickname of El León (The Lion) as its theme. “It was a sad and tired lion, who spent the whole day lying down,” he explained.

The depiction prompted him to go into therapy and embark on the long road to recovery. Returning to the game with Norwegian side Lyn Oslo and making his appearances in Showbol, he then got a helping hand from Uruguayan legend Enzo Francescoli, who set up a trial for him at River.

El Pelado, to use another of Almeyda’s nicknames, made the grade and quickly became the leader of a side struggling to find its way. His first game back came against Chacarita Juniors in August 2009, Almeyda receiving a caution moments after coming on as a late substitute. “I thought they were going to send me off in every game, but it was the most beautiful day of my career,” he recalled. “I was bursting with happiness.”

A dream return
The battle-hardened midfielder has come a long way since then, and is now the captain and heartbeat of the River line-up. Performing as a linchpin in the recently completed Apertura season, he lent balance to the side and won unstinting praise from his team-mates as well as the fans and journalists. His influence in the team was such that River won just one of the six games their skipper missed during the course of the campaign.

“It wasn’t easy to come back four years after retiring,” he said. “But thanks to my experience and commitment I’m able to read moves quicker than anyone and play passes in a tight situation. I’ve always had an edge in terms of fitness.”

What makes Almeyda’s show-stopping comeback all the more remarkable is the fact that Diego Buonanotte, Roberto Pereyra, Erik Lamela and Rogelio Funes Mori, to name but a few of his current team-mates, were only four when he made his First Division debut.

“I wish there were more Almeydas in the game,” commented Angel Cappa, his coach at River at the start of the season. “He’s moved me on a personal level in every one of his games. He’ll make a perfect coach for River one day.”

Those sentiments have been echoed by Juan Jose Lopez, Cappa’s successor on the Millonarios’s bench: “I hope he stays with us. He’s an essential figure on the pitch and in the dressing room.”

But what does El León have to say to that? “I’ll stay on for another six months because I’m really enjoying myself and feel I’m useful to the team,” replied the man himself. “You could say I’ve been born again, but this phase will come to an end in July. I won’t be suffering this time, though. I’ve got my head straight and I’ll be ready. I want to be a coach and live and breathe football. It’s what I like doing more than anything.”