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Once Caldas turn South American football on its head
By Brian Homewood
RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 9 (Reuters)
- The soccer world was too busy trying to digest Greece's performance at the European Championship last June to notice an even more astonishing upset across the Atlantic in South America.
Once Caldas, a small, provincial club from Manizales in the Colombian Andes, somehow managed to walk off with the Libertadores Cup and will line up against European champions Porto in Yokohama, Japan, for the World Club championship on Sunday.
After dispatching Brazilian clubs Santos and Sao Paulo in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, Caldas overcame defending champions Boca Juniors on penalties to win the two-leg final and turn South American club football on its head.
Their win can only be compared to a small-town team from East Europe upstaging Juventus, Real Madrid and Arsenal and winning the Champions League.
Caldas, founded in 1959 from a merger of Deportes Caldas and Once Deportivo, were taking part in the competition for only the third time after winning their first Colombian championship the year before.
Colombia itself had won the Libertadores only once previously, back in 1989 with Atletico Nacional.
Caldas's triumph reflects the fact that, while the power in European club football is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small elite, South America is going in the opposite direction.
Many countries have taken football to the provinces in the last decade and Colombian football, in particular, now shows an impressive strength in depth.
For the last two years, the country has managed to get two clubs to the Liberadores semi-finals while the last five domestic titles have been shared by four clubs from four different cities -- Caldas, Medellin, America from Cali and Tolima from Ibague.
In the past, Colombian teams have flattered to deceive, knocking the ball around the pitch in pretty patterns but failing to deliver when it matters.
But Caldas coach Luis Fernando Montoya, who is just completing two years in charge, went from the opposite approach and his realised the limitations of his side.
Instead, the 47-year-old carefully built a team of workmanlike, journeyman professionals, rather in the manner of the late Brian Clough, who won the European Cup with an equally unfashionable Nottingham Forest team in 1979 and 1980.
Once past the first-round group stage, they ground their way through the knockout stages, playing out for goaless draws in three of their four away matches and a 1-1 draw in the other.
Single-goal victories at home took them past Santos and Sao Paulo, and they needed penalty shootouts to beat Barcelona and Boca after drawing in Manizales.
Their campaign was even more remarkable considering that key striker Sergio Galvan Rey departed halfway through to play in Major League Soccer.
Rey had been a stalwart for the club for nearly a decade, scoring a record 171 goals in competitive games.
With Rey gone, it was attacking midfielder Arnulfo Valentierra who provided most of the firepower, his devastating left-foot shot producing five of their goals including a 30-metre free kick against Santos which must rank as one of the goals of the tournament.
Unfortunately, Valentierra has also departed, lured by an money-spinning offer from a club in the United Arab Emirates.
Caldas have also lost striker Jorge Agudelo, who was suspended for six months after testing positive for cocaine following the quarter-final first-leg tie away to Santos.
There have been two major signings -- Venezuela midfielder Leo Jimenez and experienced Mexico forward Antonio de Nigris.
Other key players are goalkeeper Henao, defensive midfielder Jhon Viafara and central defender Samuel Yanegas.
Henao was the real star in the Libertadores, playing in all 14 games.
The fact that he is a long-haired Colombian goalkeeper brought inevitable comparisons to his eccentric compatriot Rene Higuita but the similarities end there.
Henao prefers an orthodox approach and rarely strays from his penalty area.
He was the hero against Boca, saving two penalties in the shootout.
Caldas might well gamble their chances on taking Porto to penalties and hoping that Henao could once more produce the goods.
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