2011 is a year that will live long in the memory for two of South America’s most famous clubs, albeit for the wrong reasons. Within six months of each other, River Plate of Argentina and Colombia’s America, the most successful clubs within their respective countries, suffered relegation from the top flight for the first time in their histories.
At present, Los Millonarios are embarking on their second semester in Argentina’s Primera B Nacional, where they currently occupy one of the automatic promotion spots. Meanwhile, Los Diablos Rojos, who have 13 league titles among their honours, are just embarking on their quest to restore their first-division status.
Befitting the magnitude of that task, the club have turned to one of Colombia’s most experienced and respected coaches, Eduardo Lara, who returns to club football after nine years in charge of various categories of the country’s national team set-up.
“To have had a career like this and provided some great players for the national side is a source of great pride, but so too would be getting a team as big as America promoted again,” he told FIFA.com.
It was in June last year, with Lara about to lead Los Cafeteros at the FIFA U-20 World Cup on home soil, that the world heard the astounding news that River Plate had been relegated. In Colombia, where there is a very large contingent of Millonarios supporters, the news sent shockwaves though the football community.
“At the time I never once thought the same fate could befall America," recalled Lara. "I just didn’t believe they could do down, the possibility seemed so remote. But that’s football for you. Today the reality is that America are in a different division, one in which they do not belong, but from which we’ll be trying to get out of with dedicated work."
The manner in which the Cali outfit surrendered their top-flight status could hardly have been more dramatic: tied with Primera B champions Patriotas after two legs of their relegation/promotion play-off last December, they would agonisingly lose the ensuing penalty shoot-out 5-4 and be relegated for the first time in their history.
An unfortunate slip-up you might say? Not for Lara, who warned that the same fate that befell River and America, rivals in the Copa Libertadores finals of 1986 and 1996, could happen to others: “It sends out a message to clubs all over the world. If the big teams are not well managed both in sporting and administrative terms, then sooner or later they will face this kind of situation.”
A father’s promise
Despite being a full-time coach and someone who watches football daily, Lara devotes as much time as he can to raising his three daughters, including Valentina, a die-hard America fan: “The day the club went down I was with her at the stadium. She was very upset with what happened, not least because most of her classmates are fans of Deportivo Cali (America's arch-rivals).
“I told her not to worry and that her team wouldn’t go down. However, the most incredible thing is that, after they lost the shoot-out, I promised her that if need be I would take the team back into the first division myself. Then the very next day, the club called to offer me the job!”
After signing a one-year contract – “I didn’t want a longer one as you never know what the future holds in football” – Lara admitted he didn’t have “a minute’s hesitation” in accepting the role, which he officially began with a 1-0 win over Real Santander. However, he also knows the task will be far from easy, as evidenced by his side’s 1-1 draw in their second outing against Fortaleza.
“We’re going to face exactly the same challenges as River have," he explained. "Opponents will be really fired up when they face us, which will make our games very hard. We need to be aware that it's a long road and that there will be setbacks along the way. River lost a game against one of the bottom sides, and we too will suffer defeats.”
For all the challenges ahead, Lara signed off with an optimistic message for the club’s fans: “You need to stay calm and really get behind us. This squad has enough youth and experience to tackle the long and difficult road ahead, and, with a serious approach and the help of God and the Virgin Mary, we’ll get there.