One kick can make all the difference in the cruel world of football

It will surely be a traumatic memory for Socceroos fans, but I’ve always loved a piece of Australian radio commentary when Azizi scored that famous goal for Iran in the 1998 World Cup play off. It is a classic case of a man caught up in conflicting impulses; the professional, needing to explain the events – and the personal, that of a fan devastated by a strike that deprived Australia of what had seemed certain qualification for France.

Rodrigo Lopez, left, and teammate Juan Patino

Guarani's Rodrigo Lopez, left, and team-mate Juan Patino after failing to qualify for the Copa Libertadores against Independiente del Valle on the away-goals rule Source: AAP

It often seems to be overlooked that even after Azizi had bypassed their defence, Australia still had more than 10 minutes – in front of their own fans – to do something about it.  Football can be a cruel game but it is much crueller when the blow strikes right at the death, when there is no time left to make amends.

Hernan Rodrigo Lopez knows all about it.  The Uruguayan striker, now 38, has a long history in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s version of the UEFA Champions League.

One of the finest moments of his long career – maybe the finest of all – came in 2002, when he was signed by Olimpia of Paraguay for the decisive stages of that year’s competition.  His skill and sharpness helped the club win the title.  Both the semi final and the final were against Brazilian opponents (Gremio and Sao Caetano) and both went to penalty shoot outs.  Lopez stepped up both times to score from the spot.

Since then he was divided almost all of his time between Argentina and Paraguay, forming excellent strike partnerships, making and scoring goals, winning titles.  Now, in the twilight of his career, he has joined his fourth Paraguayan club, tiny but traditional Guarani.

In 2015, Guarani were the sensation of the Copa Libertadores, eliminating Corinthians of Brazil (winning home and away) and Racing of Argentina before falling to the eventual champions River Plate in the semi finals.  They played thoughtful football and carried a goal threat with their centre forward Federico Santander and his impressive reserve Fernando Fernandez. The campaign, of course, put these players in the shop window and they moved on. 

Lopez was brought in this year to supply some experience.  The big task was the qualifying round of this year’s Libertadores, where Guarani were up against Independiente del Valle of Ecuador.  The prize money for the competition has been doubled this year – get through to the group phase and the club would be guaranteed six matches where they would receive $845,000 per game, a hugely significant sum for such a club.

After losing the first leg 1-0 in Ecuador, Lopez was introduced 10 minutes into the second half of the return game with the match scoreless.  He quickly improved the attack, finding clever angles for his passes and creating an extra threat. 

With 10 minutes to go he came up with a typical piece of intelligent movement to lose his marker and head home a goal.  It was now 2-1 on the night, all level on aggregate but with the Ecuadorians ahead on the away goals rule.  Guarani still needed one more – and it seemed to have arrived in the sixth minute of additional time.

Once more Lopez was sharp in the area, and he drew a foul.  The Paraguayans were awarded a penalty.  It was time for Lopez to step up once more.  With his long track record, he was surely the man to take responsibility and fire past a keeper who had not looked entirely convincing.   Lopez went for power, overdid the dose and lasted the last kick of the game over the bar.  Guarani were out.

The qualifying round was cruel, too for Caracas.  The Venezuelans went to Buenos Aires for a tricky first leg away to Huracan.  They had their veteran captain, midfielder Miguel Mea Vitali, sent off towards the end of the first half.  But they did not collapse. 

Wuilker Farinez, not yet 18, lived up to his billing as a goalkeeper of extraordinary promise, lithe and athletic and sufficiently mature to organise the defence.  Caracas lost 1-0, and were confident of being able to overturn the deficit on their appalling pitch back in the Venezuelan capital.

Inside stoppage time they appeared to have pulled off a rare triumph for one of their country’s teams against Argentine opposition.  Their Colombian international Paulo Cesar Arango, improvised as a centre forward, had scored a splendid late goal to put them 2-0 into the lead.  Huracan were down to 10 men, having lost vastly experienced winger Mariano Gonzalez to a red card.  Surely there was no way back.

But in stoppage time Patricio Torranzo played a clever pass that pierced the defence down the Caracas left, Ezequiel Miralles floated a cross to the far post and Diego Mendoza headed home from close range.  Huracan were through on away goals.

Heartbreak for Caracas but very nearly disaster for Huracan. 

On its way to the airport the team bus was making its way down a steep mountain road when the brakes failed and the bus overturned.  Luckily, only minor injuries were incurred, though both Torranzo and Mendoza needed to be treated in hospital.

It could have been fatal – a reminder that though the game of football might have its cruel moments, life itself can be much crueller.

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5 min read
Published 14 February 2016 at 1:04pm
By Tim Vickery
Source: SBS