Returning heroes spy Libertadores glory
“Winning the Copa Libertadores would be a real highlight in my career,” Diego Forlan said, who at the age of 36 has seen pretty much everything in making his long and illustrious contribution to the game.
The leading goalscorer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and the winner of nine trophies in his time with Manchester United, Atletico Madrid and the Uruguayan national team, Forlan would nonetheless like nothing better than to win the Libertadores with Penarol, the club he has loved since boyhood and where he spent three years in his youth.
“Diego can’t wait to come back. He wants to play in the Libertadores with Penarol,” explained his father Pablo in the middle of last year, confirming the player’s wish to return to Uruguay after 18 years overseas. And come back he did, helping El Carbonero win the league title and secure a place in the 2016 edition of Latin America’s biggest club competition, which begins on Tuesday and which will see the Montevideo outfit start their campaign with a visit to Sporting Cristal of Peru on Thursday.
One of the things that makes this year’s tournament especially intriguing, aside from the fact that 15 of the competition’s previous 25 winners will be lining up in the group phase, is that Forlan is not the only prodigal son making a return to South America after a lengthy and glorious exile. Indeed, many are the players who have headed back to the clubs they support or that launched their careers, all of them seeking Libertadores glory and a place at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016.
Several of them can be found in Argentina, where many fans have long seen the Libertadores as a superior prize to the league title, a view shared by their homecoming heroes, intent on making the dreams of millions of supporters come true.
Carlos Tevez is perhaps the best-known of them all. A 2015 scudetto winner and UEFA Champions League runner-up with Juventus, he made his way back to his beloved Boca Juniors last July, leaving Europe on a high after nine successful seasons.
Like Forlan, he immediately pocketed a league winners’ medal and now, at the age of 32, has his sights set on the big one. “We’re gunning for the Libertadores,” said El Apache after helping his club land an Argentinian league and cup double. Tevez knows what it means to win the Libertadores with Los Xeneizes too, having starred in their 2003 triumph.
Every colour under the sun It was in that year that Andres D’Alessandro last wore the River Plate jersey before crossing the Atlantic. Now back on a loan deal at the club where he learned his trade as the outstanding creative midfielder he is, El Cabezón (“Big Head”) was the big-news signing in Argentina and is a former Libertadores winner himself, having lifted the trophy with Internacional of Porto Alegre in 2010. Now approaching his 35th birthday, D’Alessandro is determined to experience that feeling again with River. “I’m hungry and I want to be a champion. I want to put the record straight and do what I couldn’t do in 2003 or 2002 and win an international title,” he said on being unveiled by the Libertadores holders.
Internacional have bid farewell to another Argentinian who helped them reach last year’s semi-finals, with Lisandro Lopez moving back to Racing de Avellaneda after ten and a half seasons of goalscoring in Portugal, France, Qatar and Brazil, while fellow Academia youth product Rodrigo de Paul has also returned.
“I’ve always let my heart guide me and I’ve dreamed of wearing this shirt in the Libertadores. I kept pushing for it and they got the message,” said the former Valencia midfielder. Having spent 18 months away – the shortest exile of the latest clutch of South American returnees – De Paul turned down offers to stay in Europe, such was his desire to run out in the sky blue and white jersey again.
And the list goes on. While Uruguayan defender Diego Lugano did not come up through the ranks at Sao Paulo, he has made an emotional return to the club after nearly a decade away. His love for O Tricolor is certainly reciprocated by their fans, who gathered at the city’s airport in their thousands to welcome their idol, a Libertadores and Club World Cup winner with Sao Paulo in 2005.
Elsewhere, Colombia international Victor Ibarbo is back in the green and white of Medellin’s Atletico Nacional, lifelong Boca fan Daniel Osvaldo has pitched up at the Bombonera again after his short stay with Porto, and former Santos star Robinho has made a third return to Brazil after leaving for Real Madrid in 2005, this time with Atletico Mineiro.