History boys: Atlético Mineiro confound the doubters to win Copa Libertadores


They doubted Ronaldinho. They doubted him when he returned to Brazil to join Flamengo, and even more when he left them under a cloud. There had been early signs of life in Rio – the old master still conjured enough moments of wonder to get into Placar magazine's team of the year in 2011 – but the following season had brought a marked downturn in form. His decision to sign for Atlético Mineiro was, in the eyes of the cynics at least, based more on his penchant for partying than any enduring love of football; with its taste for cachaça, Belo Horizonte would provide ample opportunity for inebriation away from the media scrums of Rio and São Paulo.

They doubted Cuca, too. 13 years as a coach and only a couple of state championship medals to show for it. His teams had the unfortunate habit of imploding just when it mattered the most. Azarado, they called him. Cursed. Dedo podre. Everything he touched turned to powder. To make matters worse, he came straight from Cruzeiro, Atlético's biggest rivals. No pressure then.

Understandably, they doubted Jô. CSKA-Moscow Jô. £19million-transfer-to-Man-City Jô. Diminishing-returns-at-Everton-and-Galatasaray-and-Internacional Jô. Known-to-be-fond-of-a-night-out Jô. That Jô. Of course they doubted him.

As if to make matters worse, these three amigos were united at a club whose only national title had come in 1971. Until this year, attempts to catch up with Cruzeiro's continental success (two Copa Libertadores trophies) had ended in heartache. If Atlético's marketing department were savvy enough to promote this season's Libertadores campaign with the slogan "Yes we CAM" (CAM being the acronym for Clube Atlético Mineiro), the reality throughout the Galo's history had all too often been, "No we can't".

But history has a knack of throwing curveballs.

Wednesday night. Late. Cuca sinks to the floor in disbelief. Olimpia's Matías Giménez has just missed a penalty. Not just a penalty; the last in the shoot-out that was needed to decide the destination of the Libertadores after a 2-2 aggregate draw. The Mineirão goes wild. Atlético are champions of South America.

Despite the raucous atmosphere generated by the crowd (one of the club's supporters' groups is, appropriately, named Galoucura - a portmanteau of the Portuguese words for "rooster" (the club mascot) and "madness"), they left it late. Trailing 2-0 from the second leg, Atlético reduced the arrears just after half-time through Jô but had to wait until the dying minutes before Leonardo Silva looped a header past Martín Silva.

By this stage in the competition fans were well used to last-gasp drama: Victor had saved a 93rd-minute penalty as Atlético snuck past Tijuana in the quarter-finals; Guilherme had climbed off the bench to take the semi-final against Newell's Old Boys to penalties. There was a feeling throughout the campaign that this was simply their year. Father fate was smiling on the black and white stripes at last.

Not that Atlético didn't deserve it. In the group stage especially they were unplayable, setting about opposition sides with what became known as estilo Galo Doido – crazy rooster style. Using long balls aimed at Jô, intense off-the-ball movement and high pressing, the Galo suffocated their prey – particularly in the cosy confines of the Independência stadium. The momentum that brought home-and-away 5-2 wins over Arsenal de Sarandí gradually faded but, despite some shaky away displays later in the competition, few could deny that they were worthy winners.

There are almost too many heroes to count. Victor, such a sturdy presence in goal, had a superb tournament. Centre-backs Réver and Leonardo Silva were towers of strength, ably supported by the evergreen Gilberto Silva. Bernard and Diego Tardelli got through a huge amount of work on the flanks, still finding the energy to sprint into goalscoring positions every minute or two. Then there were the unsung heroes: attacking right-back Marcos Rocha and midfield workhorses Pierre and Leandro Donizete. All celebrated wildly after the final whistle on Wednesday.

For others, the victory had the taste of redemption. Cuca can now hold his head up high in the pantheon of Brazilian coaches, having finally been given the time to mould a side capable of seducing even rival fans. Jô, whose club form saw him called into Luiz Felipe Scolari's Seleção for the Confederations Cup, has regained the touch – and the confidence – that made him such a prospect in the first place.

Ronaldinho, meanwhile, has joined an elite group of players to have won the World Cup, the Champions League and the Libertadores. He has been peerless since joining Atlético, winning the Bola de Ouro (player of the year) award in 2012 and getting even better this term. "They said I was finished," he told reporters after the match. "Let them speak now!"

One imagines the silence of the doubters will tell its own story in the coming days and weeks.


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