Independiente del Valle overcome all odds to win Copa Sudamericana
In the end, there was late drama and a historic result for a historic occasion. Tiny Independiente del Valle of Ecuador beat Colon of Argentina 3-1 to win the Copa Sudamericana, South America's equivalent of the Europa League.
In place of the traditional home-and-away, two-legged decider, the element of chance was introduced this year to both the Sudamerica and the Libertadores in the shape of a one-off final on neutral ground.
For a while, the local football authorities must have feared that the change was doomed for failure. First, Chile -- previously seen as the continent's most stable nation -- was gripped by social unrest, which forced the Copa Libertadores final later this month to be moved from Santiago to Lima, Peru. And then the one that got the ball rolling, the Sudamericana final, ran into the problems of the Paraguayan weather.
Saturday began with the typical searing heat of November in Asuncion, the capital. One travelling fan died of a heart attack on his way to the game, with the temperature reported as a factor. But the game kicked off with half of the stadium still basking in sunshine, and the other under an ominous cloud, with a fierce wind blowing. Before long, the heavens opened. The rain was so torrential that the pitch quickly became unplayable. Some 15 minutes before half-time, the game was suspended for almost an hour, to give time for the rain to ease and for the ground staff to clear as much of the water as it could. The rain never went away, and the pitch conditions were not ideal. But the ball was rolling and Independiente del Valle were unfazed.
It seems that nothing fazes this little club from the outskirts of Quito, who over the past decade have established a reputation for the excellence of their youth development work. They were unfazed by the fact that the venue was hardly neutral; just over 500 Ecuadorian fans had entered Paraguay, alongside almost 40,000 Argentines: It was a Colon home game. But Independiente had thrashed Brazil's mighty Corinthians in Sao Paulo during their run to the final. Plus, in their Libertadores campaign three years ago, they beat Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. So they were not worried by Colon, and they were not worried by the rain.
They scored either side of the rain stoppage. First, centre-back Luis Fernando Leon, one of the symbols of the side, peered into the gloom to head home a free kick. And then their left winger Jhon Jairo Sanchez, impressively quick and powerful, cut in to steer home a second with the aid of a slight deflection.
And they were good value for their lead, well coached by the young Spaniard Miguel Angel Ramirez. They defended in groups, created in clusters and looked to free their quick wingers behind the Colon defensive line.
The Argentines looked to their veteran playmaker, Luis "The Flea" Rodriguez, to get them back into it. His moment came early in the second half. Colon seemed fortunate to be awarded a penalty for a push in the box. Up stepped Rodriguez, but it was not his surface. A subtle operator, the pitch was too heavy for him, and he struggled to get into the game. Not trusting his usual dainty finish, he went with power, but hit too close to keeper Jorge Pinos, who dived to his right to save. The heads of the Colon players went down. They seemed lose faith, and come the final minute of normal time, their massed ranks of fans were chanting more in defiance than in hope.
Then, out of the blue, they scored. A corner was nodded back across goal by substitute striker Jorge Ortega, and centre-back Emanuel Olivera forced home from close range with a high volley.
The noise ramped up, coach Pablo Lavallen was all action on the touchline and the fans dreamt of the great escape, an unlikely equaliser to force extra time. Colon's Colombian striker Wilson Morelo was played behind the Ecuadorian line, but a combination of nerves and the pitch undermined his control, and the ball ran through to the keeper.
It was then a case of everyone up front for Colon. They left themselves open at the other end, and Washington Corozo chipped for Alejandro Cabeza, who, one-on-one with the keeper, coolly slid sideways for right winger Cristian Dajome to tap over the line, and set the Independiente del Valle players celebrating like Gene Kelly as the rain continued to fall.
This title is quite simply a magnificent achievement. Ten years ago, they had never even played in the Ecuadorian first division. Now they have become a reference in player development. Every top-flight club in Ecuador has a player formed by Independiente del Valle, and their graduates are increasingly making their way abroad. The Ecuador side crowned 2019 South American under-20 champions was full of their players, who have already been sold to Europe and Mexico. Their blend of home-produced youngsters with experienced buy-ins -- veteran Argentine holding midfielder Cristian Pellerano had a fine game against his compatriots -- has turned Independiente del Valle into the big success story of recent South American club football. The Sudamericana trophy has found a worthy home.