After a three-year trophy drought, Boca Juniors have a 24th Argentinian league title firmly within their grasp. Unbeaten in their 15 games in the 2011 Apertura and with only four matches remaining in the campaign, Los Xeneizes hold an eight-point lead over their one and only challenger, Racing Club.
Having let in a mere three goals all season, and never conceding more than once in a game, the Buenos Aires giants have set a new Argentinian league record. Those near-perfect defensive statistics stand in marked contrast to the 2011 Clausura, when Julio Cesar Falcioni’s side shipped 22 goals in 19 outings, 11 of them in the final ten games.
Those figures beg a very obvious question is: what is it that has made Falcioni’s once-fragile rearguard, which creaked at every set-piece, the founding stone of what looks certain to be a championship-winning campaign?
For many the answer lies in the return of the venerable Rolando Carlos Schiavi, who won two league titles in his first spell at the Bombonera between 2001 and 2005, during which he also lifted five international trophies, among them the 2003 Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup.
“To say it’s pretty much all down to me is unfair and an exaggeration,” said the central defender, who is two years shy of 40 and fast approaching 200 appearances for Boca, in a conversation with FIFA.com. “I came here to do my bit, but there are some great players here and that makes it all so much easier. The whole team’s defending better now.”
Results have shown Falcioni was right to insist on bringing the man they call El Flaco (The Thin One) back to the club, a move that came to fruition halfway through the year. Looking for the final piece in his defensive puzzle, Falcioni, who has made solidity a hallmark of his teams, reunited the returning stalwart with Juan Manuel Insaurralde. Together the two had appeared in 66 games for both Boca and Newell’s Old Boys, helping to keep clean sheets in 32 of those matches.
“He’s one of the three best defenders I’ve ever played with,” said Schiavi of Insaurralde, expressing his satisfaction at renewing their double act.
Leader of the pack
An uncompromising man marker, commanding presence in the air and a threat in opposing boxes thanks his powerful right foot, Schiavi is also a leader of men, another compelling reason why Falcioni sought to bring him back into the Boca fold.
“You’re not born with a gift for leadership. It’s something you acquire with time and experience,” said the Xeneize skipper, a veteran of 500 games in all, a tally that includes four appearances for his country. “It’s extra pressure but it’s nice to have that, and I’m used to it.”
Schiavi’s force of character has been a regualar facet of his career. After learning his trade as a youngster with Newell’s Old Boys, he made his Argentinian league debut in 1993 with third-division outfit Argentino de Rosario. A loser in a 1995 play-off for promotion to the second division, he then moved to Argentinos Juniors, winning a place in the top flight with them in 1997. Following his silverware-laden stay with Boca, he tried his luck in Europe, signing for Spanish side Hercules in 2005. One season and 33 games later he was back in South America again.
“I would have liked to have spent more time there, no question of that, but that’s the way my career turned out. I’ve no regrets,” he said of his brief sojourn in Spain.
His next port of call was Gremio of Brazil, where he won a state championship winners’ medal but also had to play one of the toughest games of his career: the 2007 Copa Libertadores final against his beloved Boca. “When you’re a professional you can’t think about the fact you’re playing against the team you support,” he said of that tie, which the Argentinians won comfortably over two legs. “You have to think about the shirt they’re wearing, which deserves every respect.”
From Porto Alegre it was back to where it all began and Newell’s, where he became the club’s highest-scoring defender of all time, and then on to Estudiantes for a short loan spell and another Libertadores triumph in 2009.
That same year, by which time he had turned 36, Schiavi made his international debut, getting the call from Diego Maradona for the final four games of the qualifying competition of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Alas, he would miss out on a place in the finals themselves.
“I would have liked to have got my chance earlier but Roberto Ayala was in my position for a long, long time,” he said of his fleeting Argentina career. “I was excited about the possibility of going to South Africa but I knew it was a tall order.”
Schiavi’s recent form has been so good for Boca that there have been calls for current Albiceleste boss Alejando Sabella, his coach at Estudiantes, to resolve their defensive shortcomings by bringing him back into the side.
Modest to a fault, Schiavi rejected the idea: “I’m not the solution. Alejandro gives players a lot of confidence and we’ve got enough talent in the team and in Argentinian football in general to turn things around. That win in Colombia was important, and hopefully he can work in peace now.”
Though his future lies in the dugout and a job as part of an intriguing potential coaching trio alongside Martin Palermo and Roberto Abbondanzieri, Schiavi is intent on enjoying the twilight of his playing career.
“I thought things would be much harder because the club was going through some tough times,” he said, bringing our chat to a close. “I knew I was taking a big risk but luckily for me it’s working out. I don’t know what’s coming next. I thought I’d bow out with Newell’s, but to retire here would fulfil my last dream as a player. I hope I can round it off with the championship.”