Copa Libertadores: Nacional look to keep the joke on San Lorenzo
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Copa Libertadores: Nacional look to keep the joke on San Lorenzo

This year has served South American football fans an unforgettable feast. The main course was a memorable World Cup on home soil, and now, like a surprise dessert, we have the final of the 2014 Copa Libertadores, South America’s version of Europe’s Champions League.

Last Thursday, San Lorenzo of Argentina and Nacional of Paraguay battled to a thrilling 1-1 draw in the first match of the two-legged final in Asunción, the Paraguayan capital. On Wednesday, a new champion will be crowned in Buenos Aires.

Neither club has ever won South America’s most prized trophy. But San Lorenzo in particular, whose most high-profile supporter is none other than Pope Francis himself, are looking to break a haunting curse.

The Crow’s Woes

Argentina’s first ever entrant to the Copa Libertadores are actually the butt of an old Argentine joke. The initials on the club badge read ‘CASL de A,’ which stands for Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. But to some clever Argentines, it really means “Club Atlético Sin (‘without’) Libertadores de America.”

That’s because San Lorenzo are the only one of Argentina’s ‘Big Five’ (the other four being River Plate, Boca Juniors, Independiente and Racing) to never win the tournament. The other clubs, in comparison, have combined for a remarkable 16 titles.

“Los Cuervos” (the Crows) have had three whacks at the piñata, having made the semifinals in 1960, 1972 and 1980, but until now they had never reached the final. As heavy favorites going into Wednesday’s final match, they stand in unknown territory.

Thankfully, for their manager Eduardo Bauza, it is not so unfamiliar. Bauza won the 2008 Libertadores with LDU Quito, Ecuador’s only champion.

Despite Thursday’s draw, Bauza’s men dominated in Asunción, controlling most of the possession and forcing Nacional to rely solely on toothless counterattacks.

Yet they conceded right at the death. It was a 93rd-minute equalizer by Julio Santa Cruz (younger brother of the fabled Roque) that breathed life into the Paraguayans, who will pray for an upset in Buenos Aires.

But that’ll be a tall task. Nacional have yet to win on the road this tournament, while San Lorenzo are unbeaten at home, where they’ve conceded just one goal and put to the sword three Brazilian giants: Botafogo, Cruzeiro and Grêmio.

Not to mention, they’re playing – and praying – against the Pope’s team.

Playing for Paraguay?

But old Pontifex would be the first to tell you that miracles happen. And Nacional, and their 34-year-old Paraguayan manager Gustavo Moringi, have an entire country behind them.

Prices were purposefully kept low for home fans in Asunción – with most tickets selling between $5 and $20 – in an effort to encourage fans of other clubs to support Nacional. Indeed, 30,000 turned out for the match, though reports say that included 8,500 Argentines.

For Paraguay, Nacional’s success could represent much more – an opportunity to put Paraguay back in the South American football spotlight.

After a surprising run to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup, and then to the final of the 2011 Copa América, Paraguay suffered a dismal 2014 World Cup qualification campaign, finishing dead last in CONMEBOL, the South American football federation.

So here’s a chance for a traditional but small Paraguayan club, coached by an exciting, homegrown manager, to put an easily-forgotten country’s football back on the map.

Victory would make Nacional just Paraguay’s second continental champion. Olimpia, the country’s biggest club, has won three times, and were runners-up last year.

And should they be buoyed by the return of their dynamic 21-year-old Paraguayan center-forward Brian Montenegro, Nacional’s chances would take a considerable leap.

Future Stars

San Lorenzo will play the second leg without two young threats of their own. After an impressive showing in the first leg, Ignacio Piatti, 21, has reported to his new club, the Montreal Impact of North America’s Major League Soccer, while Ángel Correa, 19, continues to recover from heart surgery.

Nonetheless, San Lorenzo have a plethora of attacking threats, both young and old, to fill their void, including the exceptional 20-year-old winger Héctor Villalba.

This is more reason for all Argentines to put jokes and overblown rivalries aside, and take a page out of Paraguay’s book by uniting to support San Lorenzo, even if it is for just one night.

Many questions are circulating about the future of Argentine football after their defeat to Germany in the World Cup final last month. Wednesday’s match could showcase what lies ahead for both countries.

This year’s winner will take home $2.3 million – a sizeable purse for any club in cash-strapped South American football (the runner-up receives $1 million) – as well as a coveted place in this year’s Club World Cup.

The Copa Libertadores final will be played on Wednesday, August 13. Kickoff in Buenos Aires is at 8:15pm local time.