They looked like two strangers; those who walk on opposite paths through life until that rainy Wednesday night on October 29th, 1986 finally they found each other. River Plate wanted more than anything a title in the elusive Copa Libertadores Tournament and in that glorious day, they took that Cup into their arms.
Gone were the bad memories and frustrations. They had chased away the ghosts from the previous lost finals: River Plate was finally the Champion of America. Twice they had been close. Very close. In 1966, they had narrowly escaped with a win in a recalled third match against Penarol at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, where they lost 4-2 after being two goals ahead early. Ten years later, the executioner was Cruzeiro also pending a tiebreaker and in the same neutral ground.
Another year ending at the 6th spot, had River Plate in the final. But this time it was different, they grabbed a hold of this opportunity and became the undisputed champion and the best team of the tournament. They looked comfortable in the group stage, with an almost perfect performance: six games played, won five and tied one in the opener against arch-rivals Boca Juniors at La Bombonera 1-1. That meeting came just eleven days after the consecration of Argentina in the World Cup in Mexico and that joy still stretched across the country.
The others teams near the end were Peñarol and Montevideo’s Wanderers, who could do little against a squad that knew exactly what they had to do on the field and won the local tournament with ten points of difference. Of the Championship cast of 1985/86 Luis Amuchástegui (he played just one game in the cup) and no less than Enzo Francescoli, one of the most outstanding figures, had already left the team. The replacements found by Héctor Veira were largely effective: Antonio Alzamendi and Ramon Centurion. These changes did spark the face of the team, making it counterpuncher.
In the semifinal awaited, Barcelona and Argentina’s Juniors, who was the defending champion and whom River Plate visited at the start but ended in a scoreless draw. Then they won 3-1 against Guayaquil, where coach Veira made the right call with Nestor Gorosito who became the feeder of Alzamendi and Centurion, which were unstoppable in the red zone. Faced against the same opponent in in the second game of the series, they thrashed them 4-1 in a match that saw the debut of someone who would be a key figure in this historic campaign: Juan Gilberto Funes.
With equalizing in the last match at home against Argentina’s Juniors (who lost in Ecuador), River became one of the finalist. But there is when they experience their worst performance of the tournament and suffered their only defeat, beaten by a team that developed what they did best: play offensively, taking advantage of their three forwards: José Antonio Castro, Claudio Borghi and Carlos Ereros. It was a 2-0 win and a week after everything had to settle in a playoff game at the Velez Sarsfield field. Again the club Nunez could not exceed that of La Paternal, but the scoreless 0-0 draw favored River having scored more goals during the semifinal and gave the passport to the decisive match.
On the night of October 22, at the Pascual Guerrero stadium in Cali had an imposing appearance, close to a boiler. It was packed and grossed more than half a million dollars. America wanted to take revenge for the loss the year before, but River was determined not to be intimidated. After 23 minutes, when Funes (first time in the opening roster) opened the scoring with a violent crossed shot and barely 180 seconds later, was Norberto Alonso, with a low shot after a great pass from Alzamendi, who made it 2-0. As soon as the supplemental time came, and Roberto Cabañas ha discounted it and their opponent went massively to the attack, but the robust response of the triangle Pumpido-Gutiérrez-Ruggeri, blocked all attempts.
And the big day had arrived. Dressed like one of their best nights, overflowing with people, passion, anxiety, and desire. Just 90 minutes to make the dream a reality. Maybe all the hype or the years of frustrations, the players struggle during the first half, full of inaccuracies and an opponent who knew how to mark Hector Enrique and Alonso’s moves. Each time the ball fell into the skilled feet of Willington Ortiz, was an ordeal for the"millionarios" fans recalling that he was the executioner in 1981, with the colors of Deportivo Cali in a traumatic loss.
The rest was good for the Argentine team, as they became more composed. They came out with a different attitude and at 68 had their reward, with that swing of pure power from Juan Gilberto Funes, who finished in keeper Falcioni’s net, a soccer poster in the history of River Plate that will never go off the hook. The cry was a relief from years of foreign festivals and truncated illusions. The clock moved to the rhythm of the rain falling on Nunez. Reached the final, players hugged, Veira entered the field and kneeled to heavens thankful for the conquest. No more loath, no more hurtful nicknames. Now River also sat at the table of the great teams of the continent, now they were also America’s River.
Ramon Centurion 7
Antonio Alzamendi 6
Norberto Alonso 5
Juan Gilberto Funes 2
Chart of Appearances:
Nery Pumpido, Jorge Gordillo, Oscar Ruggeri, Alejandro Montenegro y Héctor Enrique 13 (Perfect attendance)
Antonio Alzamendi 12
Jorge Borelli, Américo Gallego, Roque Alfaro, Norberto Alonso y Ramón Centurión 10
Néstor Gorosito 8
Claudio Morresi 7
Juan Gilberto Funes y Mario Saralegui 5
Daniel Sperandío 4
Nelson Gutiérrez y Pedro Trolgio 3
Rubens Navarro y Rubén Gómez 2
Luis Amuchástegui y Patricio Hernández 1
Eduardo Bolaños - CONMEBOL.com