MATIAS ALMEYDA: River Plate in the heart and that message from ‘Diego’
It is 26 June 2011.
It is the most ominous day in the hundred and ten-year history of the ‘Band’ club.
The draw (one to one) that afternoon at the Monumental against Belgrano meant for River Plate the relegation to the ‘Nacional B’, the lower division of Argentine football.
Something unthinkable for a club with River’s tradition, following and success.
Matias Almeyda, disqualified for receiving his 5th caution in the first leg of this ‘play-out’ final match lost by River 0-2, watched helplessly from the sidelines as that unpredictable and devastating collapse unfolded.
‘El Pelado’ had long since informed his president Daniel Passarella that this would be his last season in shorts.
He is almost 38 years old and has covered a lot of kilometres in a ‘cancha’.
Matias Almeyda is River Plate.
He is the iconic player, the most representative, the most charismatic, and according to practically everyone, fans and insiders alike, he is still the strongest, the most resilient, and above all, always the last to ‘give up’.
With the ‘Millionarios’ Almeyda has made it all the way through the youth teams.
Since the age of 15, he left his family in Azul, 300 kilometres south of Buenos Aires, to become a footballer.
In River he made his first-team debut in February 1992, at the age of 18, and with ‘La Banda’ he played until 1996 before moving to Europe and becoming one of the strongest defensive midfielders on the planet.
Matias returned to ‘his’ River in August 2009, when he was already almost 36 years old and, above all, after not playing professional football for almost four years.
They were four terrible years for Matias, who had to fight against a strong depressive state and alcohol addiction problems.
In those 4 years he realised that he missed football much more than he could have imagined and when the proposal came from Enzo Francescoli, River’s Sporting Director, to return to play football in his beloved club, Matias Almeyda was reborn.
Many, almost all, interpret it as the gesture of a great club extending its hand to one of its favourite sons who is going through a moment of great personal difficulty.
It will be for many, almost all, a big misunderstanding.
Matias Almeyda is still a fantastic futbol player and will be instrumental in bringing River Plate back to the top positions of Argentine football thanks to his leadership, running and tactical intelligence.
Today, however, on this tragic 26 June, Matias is not on the pitch.
It was supposed to be his last game with River.
Instead he is just a spectator, one more hincha who is suffering from a relegation that has turned from the nightmare of previous weeks into a ruthless reality.
At the end of the match there will be a lot of anger and unfortunately also a lot of violence from a part of the River supporters who simply cannot process this enormous pain.
The sense of guilt that grips President Passarella, the management, the technical staff and the entire squad is a heavy burden to bear.
History will remember them forever for being ‘those who relegated with River’.
A branding on their skin, their careers and their lives.
Matias Almeyda will spend that night crying ‘like I had never done in my life for a football match’ he will later say.
Only Matias Almeyda is a warrior.
He is an indomitable fighter.
He is a lion.
’11 ALMEYDA’ was written on a banner in the north curve of the Olimpico, the one of the Lazio fans who got to see probably the best version of Matias as a footballer.
The next morning, the pain had already turned into something different.
It became ‘thirst for revenge’.
Two months earlier, when Matias had informed Passarella of his decision to quit football, ‘El Caudillo’, who may have many faults but is an intelligent man who knows football and knows River Plate, had replied to him as follows: ‘Pela, if I were you I would play at least another semester. But if you really want to quit I want you on the bench of our “querido” River’.
Matias Almeyda remembers that conversation.
He picks up the phone.
He knows that things have changed and he knows full well that it is madness, complete madness to take over River at a time like this.
‘Daniel, if you’re not going to quit, know that I certainly don’t have it’.
These are Matias’ words in that phone call to his president.
It does not seem true to Daniel Passarella.
Matias Almeyda, the man most loved by all the River people, is willing to sit on the Millionarios’ bench.
With everything to lose and nothing, but really nothing to gain.
In fact, Matias has only one chance: to take River back to Argentina’s top division.
Any other result would be unacceptable.
An authentic catastrophe, identical, if not worse, than being relegated.
Only Matias Almeyda accepts that challenge.
For River’s sake of course.
But also and above all because Matias Almeyda, as they say in those parts, “tiene dos huevos asi !”.
It will be a very difficult, long, tiring and stressful year.
Around the Argentine province against small clubs that against River play ‘the match of a lifetime’, with players that against the ‘Millionarios’ spit their souls out on the pitch knowing that a ‘showcase’ like this will probably never happen again.
There will be tough moments, gripped by the fear of not making it.
Even Almeyda’s bench at a certain point of the season seems to be very shaky.
It will take bomber Cavenaghi to act as spokesman for the whole team, ‘clearing’ the air for good.
‘If you send Almeyda away, we’ll leave too’ was what Daniel Passarella and the River management heard.
And exactly 362 days later, on 23 June 2012, thanks to David Trezeguet’s double against Almirante Brown, River Plate returned to the top flight of Argentine football.
Matias Almeyda, the leader who had everything to lose and nothing to gain, did it.
Only a few hours to go before the match that could seal RIVER PLATE’s return to the top flight of Argentine football, the one the Millionarios will play against Almirante Brown at the Monumental.
To Matias Almeyda comes this message.
“We are very close to your grand final against Almirante Brown and I have just asked God to help River win this match.
You may not believe me.
But that’s exactly what I did.
Let’s face it.
If you were not the coach of River Plate, I would never have asked him.
On the contrary.
Instead of watching the River game tomorrow I would put an old black and white film in the VCR and I wouldn’t give a damn about what happens in the cancha at the Monumental.
Only I am totally on your side and I hope with all my heart that you make it my friend.
But whatever happens, I want to tell you one thing: you must be serene.
Because a match or a championship cannot change anything about who you are as a person.
‘Pela’ you know how much I admire and love you.
I only really got to know you a few years ago but what I realised about you affected me incredibly.
People like you are disappearing from the face of the earth.
People who have one word, one face.
People who value truth … and friendship.
I wish you the best “Pelado”.
From the bottom of my heart and believe me … never, ever would I have imagined asking God to help RIVER PLATE !!!
It’s completely crazy when I think about it.
… and if this has happened the credit is yours, yours alone, querido Pelado”.
Signed: DIEGO ARMANDO MARADONA
ANECDOTES AND CURIOSITIES
The beginnings at River were not easy for Almeyda.
After making his debut in early 1992 in a match against Union de Santa Fé in the following two years, Almeyda played the pittance of seven matches.
It is a situation that ‘El Pelado’ does not feel he can sustain for long.
He decides to take the bull by the horns.
The ‘bull’ in this case is River’s manager, Daniel Alberto Passarella, who is bringing the ‘Millionarios’ back to the top of Argentine football.
Passarella is not exactly an easy person. His charisma and strong personality do not recommend confronting him head-on.
There are many who try to dissuade young Matias.
Almeyda does not want to waste time with managers or trainers.
He wants to hear things said to his face by the man in charge.
And at River Plate, the one in charge is Daniel Alberto Passarella.
“I want to know what he intends to do with me. If I don’t fit into his plans tell me. There is a team, Sarmiento de Junin, that has offered me the chance to play with them. And me playing football is all I want,’ these are Almeyda’s words to the Argentine ‘Caudillo’, the man who lifted his country’s first World Cup to the sky in 1978.
Passarella is bewildered.
But at the same time admired by the boy’s grit and determination.
‘Just wait a week. If, as it seems, we sell Zapata, you will join the first team’ is Passarella’s reply.
The River manager is true to his word. Zapata is sold to a team in the Japanese league and Matias Almeyda signs a new contract with River, joining the first team on a permanent basis.
Almeyda also recalls with amusement the rules laid down by Passarella, an authentic iron sergeant.
Reminding him of them as soon as he joined the team is ‘El Tolo’ Gallego, Passarella’s second and his squire in the Argentina that won the World Cup.
“Remember Matias. Be noticed as little as you can, speak even less, be respectful and polite. And wear your hair short. This is what you have to do if you don’t want to have problems with Passarella.”
Within three seasons Matias Almeyda became indispensable in River.
Two victories came in the Apertura Championship (1993 and 1994) and above all the Copa Libertadores in 1996.
Meanwhile, on the River bench sat Ramon Diaz, one of the greatest strikers in the history of the Buenos Aires club and of all Argentine football.
With Diaz at the helm Almeyda was forced to vary his position slightly, ending up almost always playing as a right midfielder in the midfield ‘rhombus’ wanted by Diaz.
Almeyda adapted splendidly and it was he who scored the decisive goal in the semi-final against Universidad de Chile that gave them access to the Libertadores final, which they then won against Colombia’s América de Cali.
In 1996, Almeyda was called up for the Olympic Games in Atlanta with the Argentine national team. It is a very strong national team, even though it is made up of Under-23s with only three ‘out-of-teams’ allowed. Almeyda’s performances are of the highest level. The Games are obviously seen all over the world, and for Matias a real auction is triggered.
The most attractive offer came from Real Madrid, who wanted him in their ranks.
Matias Almeyda, however, refused.
A few weeks earlier he had already given his word to another La Liga team, Sevilla.
And so it will be. Matias Almeyda moved to the Sanchez-Pizjuan club for almost 10 million dollars.
… at the end of that season Real Madrid will win La Liga and Sevilla will relegate to the second division.
“I have always been a magician in my choices!” joked Matias later, remembering that period.
At Sevilla, Almeyda is the result of a big misunderstanding.
“The fans were convinced a new Maradona was coming. Instead, I was running, fighting and winning balls. But goals and assists, no way!”
He became one of the scapegoats of the ‘Blanquirrojos’ disastrous season and the main target of the fans’ frustration.
At the end of the season, however, came the turning point.
Coming forward for Almeyda was Lazio, which Patron Cragnotti was bringing back to the top of Italian and European football.
These were to be the golden years for Matias, adored by the Lazio public for his generosity, his courage and his combative, never tame style.
‘UNDICI ALMEYDA’ will become one of the most popular slogans among the Biancocelesti fans.
In that period, trophies in series would arrive, first of all the Scudetto of the 1999-2000 season, which would also be the zenith of Matias’ career.
In that summer of 2000 he was included in the Crespo deal, passed from Parma to Lazio and Matias had to, despite himself, take the reverse route.
It would not be a happy season for Almeyda in the Emilian city, despite a Coppa Italia victory.
The relationship with the Gialloblu management would often be very conflictual and more than once Matias Almeyda would be forced to admit that ‘the two seasons at Parma were the absolute worst of my career’.
Of those years Almeyda has only ever saved the excellent relationship with Arrigo Sacchi (who acted as sporting director) and above all with coach Renzo Ulivieri, whose fairness and great humanity Almeyda has always remembered.
Inter and Brescia are his last two Italian stages marked by constant physical problems and fluctuating results.
They will be very important from a human point of view, however.
That period saw the birth of a great friendship with Daniele Adani, the famous Sky pundit and Matias’ former teammate at both Inter and Brescia.
‘Lele is my soul mate,’ says Matias in the wonderful biography written by Diego Borinsky. “We talk every week and I am sure that sooner or later our professional paths will end up meeting again.”
For Matias Almeyda, the world literally collapsed when, at only 32, he decided to quit football. After a season with Quilmes and turning down an offer to return to ‘his’ River at the end of 2006, ‘El Pelado’ decided to hang up his boots.
‘When Matias stopped playing football, it took away his joy, his spirit and his will to live,’ these are the dramatic words of his wife Luciana.
Alcohol became the refuge where he tried to close the hole that, without football, had opened up in his soul.
These were difficult months for Almeyda and all those close to him.
There are hospital runs with states of near ethyl coma, there are social situations where Matias loses control and embarrasses himself and his family.
Then comes the call from Enzo Francescoli.
Matias literally comes ‘back to life’.
Today he is an accomplished and happy man.
He coaches in the MLS league in the United States.
His San José Earthquakes went from being the ‘Cinderella’ of the league to just missing out on the play-offs last season.
The United States, another step, another experience … waiting to see Matias Almeyda on an important bench in the Old Continent.
Since last summer, Matias has been the new coach of the Greek team AEK ATHENS, which, like all teams coached by Almeyda, is having an excellent season in the top positions of the league table.
Spain, England or Italy his next destianation.
Special thanks to the magazine ‘El Grafico’, to the beautiful website revistauncanio and to the wonderful biography on Matias Almeyda written by the very talented Diego Borinsky, all sources from which I have drawn heavily for this piece on Matias Almeyda, a footballer, coach and person whom I personally appreciate very much.