Gareca's full circle at Velez
On 3 October 1971, Velez Sarsfield went into the final day of the Metropolitano championship one point clear of runners-up Independiente. The former hosted Huracan while the latter entertained Gimnasia La Plata, with the leaders going a goal up after just seven minutes and everything seemingly going in their favour. Disaster struck, however, when Huracan turned the tables on their opponents and Independiente beat Gimnasia to snatch the title from Velez's grasp.
Among the Velezana faithful that day was 13-year-old Ricardo Gareca, accompanied by his father Alberto, though amid all the disappointment the youngster would have had no inkling of what was to happen some 38 years later. Now coach of his beloved Velez, his charges lay a point behind frontrunners Huracan going into the final game of the Clausura 2009, with the two sides set to square off at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani. A late Maximiliano Moralez strike secured a 1-0 home win, clinching the title for Velez and avenging that Metropolitano setback in the process.
"It (the 1971 game) was one of the first times my old man took me to a match. It's things like that which give me such a strong bond with this club," said Gareca, whose father passed away in September 2008. "This time around we did it though and it was fate that it should happen against Huracan."
Crossing the divide
Gareca was born in the Buenos Aires province of Tapiales on 10 February 1958, subsequently coming up through the youth ranks at capital giants Boca Juniors before making his top-flight debut at 20. But having been sent on loan in 1981 to newly promoted Sarmiento de Junin, he was not part of the Diego Maradona-inspired Boca team that won that year's Metropolitano.
Gareca was a powerfully built forward who was superb in the air and boasted quick feet despite his size, his goalscoring prowess winning over the Xeneize faithful after his return in 1982, only for it to all go sour when he joined arch-rivals River Plate two years later. "That turned people against me and caused me problems during my career. I don't regret it, but with hindsight I'd take a different view of it," he said many years later.
Gareca also broke into the Argentina set-up under then-coach Carlos Bilardo, even scoring in the latter's first game in charge: a 2-2 friendly draw away to Chile in 1983. More crucial was his strike against Peru on 30 June 1985, when he was on hand to tap home a Daniel Passarella effort that had come back off a post and clinch the 2-2 draw that secured La Albiceleste's place at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™.
"Daniel made a monumental effort to send the ball towards goal, but it hit the post and wouldn't have crossed the line if I hadn't scrambled it home," recalled Gareca of his sixth and final goal for his country. Indeed, Bilardo failed to include him in the squad for the victorious Mexico 1986 campaign and Gareca never added to the 20th Argentina cap he won against Peru.
From the pitch to the dugout
He subsequently moved from River to big-spending Colombians America, where he won two league titles and picked up three Copa Libertadores runners-up medals before returning home to play for Velez between 1989 and 1992. In an intriguing quirk of fate, he finished his career at Independiente, where he signed off in spectacular fashion against none other than Huracan once more. Needing to beat El Globo, who were a point clear, to win the Clausura 1994, Gareca scored El Rojo's final goal in a 4-0 success - his 116th career strike in 334 matches.
His coaching bow came in San Martin de Tucuman's 1995 promotion-winning campaign, before going on to take Cordoba outfit Talleres into the top flight in 1997 and to victory in the Copa CONMEBOL just one year later. Subsequent spells at Independiente, Colon, Quilmes, Argentinos Juniors and Colombian sides America and Santa Fe yielded mixed results, though he invariably gave the impression of a professional and dedicated coach for whom "success isn't just about winning titles; saving a team from the drop is also a success".
But it was on the back of claiming a piece of silverware, in this case victory in the Peruvian Apertura 2008 with Universitario, that the call from Velez came. "When I signed the contract, I saw a huge photograph listing all the titles that the club had won," he said. "It made me realise that if I wanted recognition, I'd have to win something. And fortunately, that's what happened."