Though the days of Antonio Alzamendi speeding down the wing or cutting inside and ghosting past defenders in the No7 River Plate jersey may be over, the Millonarios faithful have far from forgotten him. Now 59 and sporting a shock of white hair, the Uruguayan forward says that he has become “sensitive” with age, which might explain his reaction to the adulation he received from the River fans on a recent trip to Buenos Aires.
It came on 3 August, when he made the journey from his native Uruguay to the Argentinian capital to see his beloved River claim the Copa Libertadores title. His appearance caused the home fans to strike up an old chant once sung in his honour, back in the days when he became a club legend on the back of the header that gave Los Millonarios a 1-0 win over Steaua Bucharest in the 1986 Intercontinental Cup.
“Hearing them sing “Uruguayo, Uruguayo!” gave me goose bumps," Alzamendi told FIFA.com, recalling that recent heartfelt ovation from the fans. "It had me shaking all over. I was lucky enough to score the most important goal in River’s history and that’s kept me in their thoughts.”
Anxious to downplay his part in that triumph, Alzamendi added: “We were a team that filled in the biggest black hole in the club’s history, and that black hole was never having won the Copa Libertadores and the world title. What we did is still fresh in the memory, and it was a historic achievement for one of the most important clubs in the world.”
River’s relationship with the Libertadores was an unhappy one until the likes of Alzamendi, Norberto Beto Alonso, Oscar Ruggeri, Hector Enrique, Nery Pumpido, Americo Gallego and Juan Gilberto Funes broke the curse in October 1986. Less than two months later they travelled to Japan – where River will return this December to contest the FIFA Club World Cup – with Alzamendi stooping to give Los Millonarios their one and only Intercontinental Cup win and complete, in the space of only 46 days, an international double that broke a 26-year hoodoo.
*No fear *
“The pressure was on us in every game, but we had a group of players who could stand up to anything,” Alzamendi continued. “We were up for any challenge, and we didn’t care who we came up against because we were confident we could beat anyone.
“It was a team that broke with River’s history. Maybe we didn’t play the prettiest football but we were very strong. That team had a lot of character.”
The motivational skills of coach Hector Veira were also crucial to their success: “El Bambino convinced us that we could go down in the club’s history," Alzamendi explained. "His team talks got you so pumped up you felt like King Kong.”
After sweeping their continental rivals aside, Veira’s River travelled to Tokyo to take on a Steaua side that had stunned everyone by beating Barcelona in the European Cup final and which contained seasoned Romania internationals such as Marius Lacatus, Miodrag Belodedici, Adrian Bumbescu and Gavril Balint.
Describing the first time they caught sight of their opponents, Alzamendi summed up the psychology of that River squad: “We arrived in Japan virtually at the same time as the Romanians. They were wearing suits and we were in this gym gear that was so tight we looked like dancers.
“We said to ourselves: ‘Look at those madmen. Look at them. Look at the meat on them. We’re going to eat them anyway. We’re going to beat them anyway.’ And that’s how it turned out. It was very difficult to get the better of us. We had four world champions with Argentina and five members of the Uruguayan national team. We weren’t little kids. We were a pretty fierce bunch.”
The right stuff
Many of the fans who witnessed River’s three Libertadores wins – the second of which came in 1996, a year in which they went on to lose to Juventus in Japan – believe the current champions and the class of '86 have a lot in common. Having followed their Libertadores run to the final on TV (“I like watching football in peace and quiet, at home with my wife and sipping on mate”), Alzamendi agreed in part.
“The players are totally different in terms of characteristics but they’ve got a similar team spirit and this team has also learned how to win finals and get through tough games,” he said. “When we beat the Brazilians in the quarters (a 3-0 victory over Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte following a 1-0 home defeat in the first leg), I saw a very strong team. They showed a huge amount of character, and the coach Marcelo Gallardo has got a lot of personality and knows the game inside out.”
River’s dream now is to win their semi-final on 16 December and then take down the mighty Barcelona in the final four days later in Yokohama. But is it an impossible one? “If I bumped into Luis Enrique, I’d tell him to watch out because River have got what it takes,” replied a defiant Alzamendi.
“Barcelona have got (Luis) Suarez, (Lionel) Messi, Neymar and (Andres) Iniesta but it’s just the same as when we played the Romanians. There are only 11 of them. I think River have got a real chance. I suppose they’re Goliath and we’re David. Watch out, because a little stone could do them a lot of damage.”
Speaking with true Uruguayan grit, the former No7 added: “Roque Maspoli, who played in goal in the Maracanazo in 1950, used to say to us: ‘Everyone said Brazil beat us 99 times out of 100, but we beat them the one time we had to. Brazil can have the other 99.’
“I think River can do the same. Barcelona would maybe win nine times out of ten, but let’s see what happens when the game’s played. Football is all about doing it when you have to, and this team has responded superbly when it’s had to stand up and be counted.”