Monday, December 15, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: December 31, 11:48 AM UK
Edgardo Bauza and the improbable job
Manchester United may or may not take it seriously, and if they don't do it will hardly be a surprise, such is the way the Club World Cup (and its previous incarnation as the Intercontinental Cup) is viewed in the 'old continent'.
For some participants, though, it means a lot more, and that's never truer than this year, with the South American representatives scarcely able to believe they're really there, and their manager hoping to bow out in style.
In 2007, when Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito (LDU) were eliminated from the Copa Libertadores in the group stage by just a point, there was disappointment. Their boss, the Argentine Edgardo Bauza, was roundly blamed for a group campaign which began with a 1-0 loss to Venezuelan minnows Caracas F.C. (who weeks later became the first Venezuelan side to win in Argentina, beating River Plate and going on to qualify at both River's and LDU's expense) and also took in a 4-0 tonking away to Chilean champions Colo-Colo.
Less than fourteen months on, with Bauza still in charge in spite of the suggestions carried on fans' banners in the stands following that elimination, Liga beat Brazilian giants Fluminense (also first-time finalists) on penalties after two fantastic legs of the final of the 2008 Copa Libertadores to become the first Ecuadorian side to lift South America's premier club trophy.
The six months since that June night in Rio haven't been the best for perhaps the most surprising champions South America has ever had. LDU were pipped to the 2008 Ecuadorian title by city rivals Sociedad Deportivo Espoli de Quito, after an underwhelming domestic season in which the expectations of living up their continental crown, won halfway through the season, eventually proved too much. It could have been worse - Fluminense, the defeated finalists, only narrowly avoided relegation in Brazil this year - but it could have been a lot better as well.
Edgardo Bauza was linked, albeit very briefly, with the managerial post (now filled) vacated by Diego Simeone in November at River Plate back in his homeland, and there was some doubt as to whether he would remain in charge for the tournament in Japan this week. He's still there, but not for much longer - one of the country's main newspapers, El Comercio, revealed earlier this month that he'll be leaving his post after the competition, whatever the outcome, due to "frustrations in the squad" surrounding their disappointing form.
Bauza - who according to the International Federation of Football History and Statistics is the fourth-highest scoring defender of all time, having bagged 109 goals during his playing career in Argentina and Mexico - was popular across Ecuador after leading Liga to the Libertadores. Ecuadorian football isn't marked by the same rivalries as his homeland, and most of the country's fans were proud to see an Ecuadorian team enjoy international success. His boots will be filled in the new year by Uruguayan Jorge Fossati, who won a domestic title as their manager in 2003.
The decision to leave having been prompted by poor morale in the team, it's ironic that it's now likely to draw the players closer together as they look to send their much-respected coach out on a high. Liga have been called, somewhat cruelly, the weakest team yet to win a Copa Libertadores, and for this reason above any other it's tempting to suspect that for the first time the Club World Cup might feature a finalist from outside the "big two" continents.
The fact that they'll play Pachuca of Mexico - an unusually strong winner of the CONCACAF Champions League - in their semi-final strengthens the possibility, but any perceived gap in class might be outweighed by the desire of the players.
It won't only be guts dragging them through though, because for all the accusations that they only won the Libertadores thanks to the altitude of their home stadium (they did have to play away matches as well), they can play a bit. Bauza believes in being well organised, and attacks with width. Key men include Bauza's compatriots, striker Claudio Bieler and playmaker Damián Manso. The name most familiar to Anglophone spectators will probably be Agustín Delgado, 'The Tin Man' who had an ill-fated season at Southampton in 2002-2003 and joined Liga in 2007 from Red Bull New York of MLS. Now retired internationally, Delgado is Ecuador's all-time highest scorer, with thirty-one goals.
Also vital will be 23-year-old wide man Luis Bolaños, who despite his relatively tender age has been playing for Liga since 2002. He's pacy and, if he gets the chance to run at opposing full backs, he won't shy away. He's recently broken into the Ecuador squad after playing a vital role in Liga's 2007 domestic title win and finishing as the club's top scorer as they won the Copa Libertadores this year with five goals.
Captain and fellow winger Patricio Urrutia, meanwhile, is the side's all-time top scorer in the Libertadores, with thirteen, and featured for Ecuardor in the 2006 World Cup, playing all three group matches - although he didn't get off the bench for the narrow second round defeat to England.
Liga, then, despite a strong team, have found the excitement of the first half of 2008 difficult to live up to since. One of their manager's compatriots is in the Manchester United squad, and Carlos Tevez could be forgiven for feeling he's in a similar position personally to Liga's collective. After performances and vital goals which won the hearts of United's fans last season, he's found himself out on a limb this term.
Whether Tevez is going to move on, we shall have to wait and see. Bauza certainly will be doing - but he can probably be even surer than Tevez that, whatever the outcome in Japan, he'll be fondly remembered by the club's fans. After all, it's not every day Ecuador has representatives on the world stage.