Famous for its legendary amusement park, the Montevideo neighbourhood of Parque Rodo is offering a different kind of attraction this week, as local club Defensor Sporting set about the task of clinching a place in the final of the Copa Libertadores for the very first time.
The first club to break Nacional and Penarol’s stranglehold on the Uruguayan league championship in 1976, Defensor face quite a task if they are to make another piece of history in front of their own fans on Tuesday, having gone down 2-0 to Paraguay’s Nacional in last week’s first leg in Asuncion.
Yet while the Violeta supporters are in a state of some agitation, all is calm in the Defensor dressing room, as club legend Nicolas Olivera told FIFA.com: “We’ve come back from results like this before. We’re relaxed. We’ve got a shot at glory and that’s what counts.”
Now 36, Olivera is without question the club’s all-time idol. Though injury problems have restricted him to just three starts in Defensor’s Copa campaign, Nico has made some valuable goalscoring contributions from the bench, doing what he has always done in a career that has seen him play in Spain, Mexico and for the national side.
With five goals to his name so far, he is the leading scorer in this season’s Libertadores, though he was unable to add to that tally in the Paraguayan capital, much to his frustration.
“We did things we shouldn’t have done,” he said. “We played a lot of long balls up to the strikers and we didn’t win the knock-downs. We were stretched, which stopped us from playing our game and pressing the opposition. We just weren’t comfortable, and Nacional are very tactically astute too.”
As far as Olivera is concerned, the break for 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ has done Fernando Curutchet’s side no favours: “We were playing a tactical, team-based game that was earning us a lot of results. We were working to perfection almost, but since the break we’ve had to start again, both physically and mentally. Sometimes it’s not so easy to go back and start over.”
Ahead of what he described as a “unique” match, Olivera said the lessons of the immediate past have been learned: “We know what we shouldn’t do and what we have to start doing again. We need to enjoy ourselves too and make sure all this pressure doesn’t weigh down on the youngsters. It’s great to be playing a tie like this. It’s a one-off match for us, the club and the fans.”
Defensor have been known for many decades as Los Tuertos (The Blind Men), a nickname they owe to the fact that one of their founders, Alfredo Ghierra, and his brother were partially sighted and that one of the players was cross-eyed. Though a term of abuse at the time, the name is now a source of pride.
Pride is the first thing that came into Olivera’s mind when he spoke of his association with the club, which began when he was 11: “Defensor are the love of my life. I’ve grown with them. They’ve shown me virtually everything and have protected me all the way.”
He left the Montevideo outfit for the first time at the age of 19, after helping Uruguay finish runners-up at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Malaysia 1997 and winning the adidas Golden Ball as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
After playing for Valencia, Sevilla, Valladolid, and Cordoba, he came back for the second of his five spells with the club in 2004. “It makes you feel emotional knowing you’re still a big part of the club,” he said. “All I’ve wanted to do whenever I’ve returned to Uruguay is to repay them on the pitch for everything they’ve done for me.”
His unstinting commitment and the fact that he has only ever worn the violet jersey in Uruguay, having fulfilled his promise never to play for Nacional or Penarol, have made him a hero of the Defensor faithful, who call him La Banda Marley in tribute to the player’s own idol.
“I grew up with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and the like, and I read about them,” he explained. “My inspiration is music and the life of Marley, what he meant to people with his reggae music. He started out his career in much the same way as I did in football. We didn’t want for anything in my house, but we weren’t well-off either, and I understood that life was a question of sacrifice and humility.”
His passion for all things Marley manifested itself during his time with Sevilla, as he explained: “I had these china figurines of the Wailers and whenever I left home to join up with the team, I’d always light a candle to them, to give me strength and energy.”
He showed his appreciation for the Jamaican singer on the pitch too, celebrating every goal he scored by lifting his jersey to reveal a Rastafarian shirt underneath, a gesture still remembered today by Sevilla fans.
The peak of Olivera’s European career came in Seville, though for a player regarded as the best in the world in his age group in 1997, there are many who feel his stay on the old continent was not long enough.
Olivera has no regrets, however: “I got into football because I wanted to play with my friends. I never worried about money issues during my career, and when I was in Europe I was where I wanted to be and with my friends. Maybe things could have worked out better for me, but that’s just talk now. I am happy and proud of what I achieved. I always felt important in the teams I played for. I feel I made my mark.”
Nowhere has he made a greater mark than in El Parque Rodo, where he returned for the last time in 2013. Though two broken bones made it hard for him to settle in again, he has been making up for lost time in 2014.
“I’ve always dreamed of going out with a Uruguayan league title, which I’ve never won,” he said, contemplating his pre-retirement goals. “But I could call time on my Defensor career with a Libertadores title, which would be really big. I’m just as excited as I’ve always been.”