Remembering 2014: When San Lorenzo became more than “the Pope’s club”

Between now and Dec. 25, SoccerGods.com will be looking back at the people, teams and moments that defined the 2014 soccer world. In South America, that meant a first time Libertadores champion – the culmination of a two-year rebuild that brought one of Argentina’s biggest clubs to new heights. Here, Joel Richards explains how a restructured San Lorenzo claimed its first South American championship:

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“I’m sad because we weren’t so far away,” Leandro Romagnoli said after his team’s 2-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final. The difference will, in years to come, suggest San Lorenzo was not overrun by the European champions. The reality on the field was somewhat different. But while the gulf in quality was evident, nobody should be surprised. San Lorenzo president Matias Lammens told the Spanish press that his club’s annual budget is $12 million. Real Madrid spends $663 million.

It was more than accounting that separated the two teams who reached the final showdown of the FIFA calendar. San Lorenzo finished the last Argentine season in eighth position, losing nine times – this in the short format of 19 games per seasons. Real Madrid has lost seven games in 12 months. And this summer, while the European champion built on its success and strengthened its squad, the South American champion had to adjust to its new reality, one which involves selling its brightest young talent (Angel Correa to Atlético de Madrid), scouring the market for affordable experience (by signing the Colombian veteran Mario Yepes) and relying on the remaining core guided by the club’s captain, Romagnoli.

It was that changed squad that went to Morocco for the Club World Cup – a competition that gives South American sides a chance to prove a thing or two to haughty European opposition. Real Madrid knows only too well about this, losing to Boca Juniors in 2000. Argentine side Estudiantes, under coach Alejandro Sabella and with Juan Sebastian Veron still running midfield, almost provided an upset in 2009. But the true distance between the European and South American game was amply displayed in 2011, when Barcelona defeated Neymar’s Santos 4-0. “We were taught a lesson,” said the Brazilian, who soon moved to Barcelona to continue his education.

At San Lorenzo, few dared to dream of an upset, but it nonetheless rounded off a formidable few years at the club. Just two years ago, San Lorenzo was more concerned about relegation than continental titles. The Ciclón (Cyclone) only stayed in the first division after winning a relegation playoff, a moment which proved to be an inflection in the club’s history. An institutional situation that combined debt and problems with the violent barra brava, who would barge in to the first team’s dressing room and fight with players, brought about early club presidential elections.

Lammens, with media mogul and host of a raunchy primetime TV dancing reality show Marcelo Tinelli as his running mate, won the subsequent election and set about putting the house in order, both on and off the pitch. By early 2013, results had picked up, though the change coincided with unexpected world fame.

RELIGION-VATICAN-POPE

The white smoke at the Vatican in March 2013 was for the new Supreme Pontiff, who was also about to become the most famous San Lorenzo fan in the world. As a youngster, Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires attended every single during the club’s 1946 championship winning season. His father played for San Lorenzo, albeit at basketball, and as Cardinal he blessed the club chapel that was paid for by another famous supporter, actor Viggo Mortensen. He was once thrown out of the first team changing room by coach Alfio Basile, who saw the future pope as interfering with preparations.

Soon after Bergoglio become Pope Francis, his affection for San Lorenzo made worldwide news. The club setup desks near the Vatican, hoping to sign up new members of His Holiness’s club.

While Argentina reveled in all Pope-related news emanating from Italy, so too did the pontiff revel in San Lorenzo’s new success. Soon, after the Torneo Inicial ended in Dec. 2013, Pope Francis received San Lorenzo’s first title-winning side in six years, along with Primera Division’s trophy. In turn, the Pope gave a Virgin Mary to the club’s delegation for the stadium in the hope that it would bring continued success. It worked, though before turning its attention to Libertadores, the club had to replace a key part.

Head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi parlayed San Lorenzo’s success into a job with Valencia. The resulting shakeup saw Lammens and Tinelli appoint a club manager – a position that few Argentine clubs choose to fill. Directors usually do the hiring, firing, and scouting, but the few sides that have installed a sporting director have enjoyed success. In the wake of Pizzi, the clubs new leadership elected to go with a two-pronged approach.

Former striker Bernardo Romeo was tabbed to oversee the clubs’ football and scouting, while Edgardo Bauza, the well-liked former central defender who stands only behind Ronaldo Koeman, Daniel Passarella and Fernando Hierro as highest goal-scoring defender in the game, was chosen to replace Pizzi. Perhaps more importantly, Bauza had a Libertadores title from his time with Ecuador’s’ Liga de Quito, winning the competition in 2008. The achievement singled him out as the man to continue San Lorenzo’s run.

San Lorenzo v Nacional - Copa Bridgestone Libertadores 2014

Bauza built on the side he inherited, including the likes of Romagnoli and Ignacio Piatti at forward, the hardworking Julio Buffarini on the right of midfield and Santiago Gentiletti and Mauro Cetto in defense. Paraguayan international Néstor Ortigoza, meanwhile, was also a central figure, though he’d earned something of a cult status. Carrying the look of as anti-footballer (middle, above), the Argentina-born midfielder has drawn disparaging comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo on social networks, none of which detracted from his ability to patrol the middle.

That core scraped barely scraped through Libertadores’ group phase, finishing even on points with an Independiente del Valle team that left the competition on a tiebreaker. But in the knockout phase, San Lorenzo upset Brazilians Gremio and Cruzeiro to reach the semifinals. After thrashing Bolivar 5-1 on aggregate, the club advanced to its first Libertadores final, where it met Paraguayan side Nacional. At home in the south of Buenos Aires, the winner came from the penalty spot and boot of the anti-footballer, Ortigoza.

The celebrations were euphoric, the club putting an end to a 54-year itch to become claim its first Libertadores. But the title also fed into the mood of a club that had not only seen silverware but also institutional growth. Finally, 25 years after Argentina’s military dictatorship evicted the club from the neighborhood of Boedo, San Lorenzo was ready to return to its spiritual home. Buying back the land, which currently homes a large supermarket, has been the club’s ambitious but out-of-reach dream for generations, but after negotiations and lobbying at City Hall, that move is now a reality. Former players such as Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Fabricio Coloccini have all chipped in to help bring the site back under San Lorenzo’s control.

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In the conveyor belt of success stories that Argentina’s short seasons generate, San Lorenzo’s triumph soon fell by the wayside. After being crowned South America’s champion, the club’s league form dipped dramatically, as it was impossible to focus on anything but the expected final with Real Madrid. Racing Club and River Plate dominated headlines during the Torneo de Transición, with el Ciclón only resuming center stage for the Club World Cup.

Now, in addition to being known as the Pope’s team, a newly secure club, one about to reclaim part of its history, can be known as South American’s champion – the first time the 106-year-old club had ever laid claim to the honor. Perhaps the year didn’t end as the Cuervos would have wished, but this historic year, after so many difficult years, still ended with San Lorenzo rubbing shoulders with the world’s best.

More: Remembering 2014

Photo credits, from top of bottom: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images; Amilcar Orfali/LatinContent/Getty Images

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