Edgardo Bauza was a saint. He’d performed a miracle. The jokes could stop. No longer could rival fans joke that the CSLA on their crest stood for Club Atletico sin Libertadores – in 2014 San Lorenzo finally became South American champions.
A 106-year wait came to an end just one year after their most famous supporter, Pope Francis, became the first man from the Americas to hold office at the Vatican. A delegation from the club headed straight to Rome to present him the trophy.
And it was Bauza who had led one of Argentina’s most storied clubs into the light, following up his 2008 success with Ecuador’s LDU Quito to become the first coach to win South America’s Champions League with clubs from different countries.
Just two years previously, San Lorenzo had been hamstrung by mismanagement and crippled by debt, with even Argentina’s convoluted relegation system (calculated on an average-points total over three years) which is heavily weighted in favour of the big clubs couldn’t prevent them from needing a play-off to avoid relegation.
Bauza did it, he said, by adding balance to a side that had raced its way to Argentina’s 19-match league title in 2013 under former coach Juan Antonio Pizzi. “The team had won the Argentinian league by playing a very attack-minded game, with everyone pushing forward. We had a lot of firepower up front but were weak at the back,” Bauza told FIFA.com.
That San Lorenzo side weren’t one for the ages, but they were certainly the best team on the continent that year; as were LDU in 2008, who played with tempo and took full advantage of the altitude of Quito, which saw Bauza named South American Coach of the Year.
His two major successes had arrived via a measured approach, by taking a step back to assess what he was working with before deciding how to move forward, which is also how his playing career began.
A fine midfielder in his adolescence, Bauza’s break came at a mass trial held by Rosario Central for hundreds of hopefuls in his province of Santa Fe. When the coaches asked the kids where they played, the overwhelming majority were midfielders or forwards.
To stand out, Bauza claimed he was a centre-back. He went on to played more than 300 league games for Central, hitting over 100 goals to leave him one of the most prolific stoppers in the game’s history. Nicknamed El Paton (Big Foot), Bauza was an imposing defender who stood over 6 ft 2 in and struggled to find boots to fit.
His coaching career also began with Central and took him to Peru, and to Riyadh with Al Nassr in 2009, before his saintly success at San Lorenzo led him to Sao Paulo in 2014. Brazil provided the biggest stage of his career up to that point, but also the greatest task.
Sao Paulo were a shadow of the club that had won national, continental and international titles a decade previously, plagued by financial and institutional problems, they’d just lost a host of stars including Alexandre Pato to Chelsea and club legend Rogerio Ceni to retirement. Bauza’s pragmatic approach led them all the way to semi-finals of the Libertadores, and led Bauza to the Argentina job in August 2016.
He inherited a mess, however. The Argentinian Football Association (AFA) was in a state of chaos, a FIFA normalisation committee having been drafted in to remedy the endless institutional own goals that led to Lionel Messi’s brief international retirement in 2016.
Three defeats in major international finals in three years had morale at rock bottom and the relationship between the local press and players deteriorated to such an extent that Messi led the entire squad out to a press conference to announce a media blackout just three months after Bauza’s arrival.
It would be a baptism of fire that would see him Bauza from saint to sinner. He had no friendlies and very little time to work with his players, and frequently found himself without Messi.
The Barcelona man was available for just four of Bauza’s eight games in charge – Argentina won three of them. They would be the only three Bauza would win and, after a very fortunate 1-0 victory over Chile was followed up by a 2-0 defeat to Bolivia in March, he was sacked.
He had failed to implement a style of play or settle on his preferred personnel. With four matches remaining, Argentina sit outside South America’s automatic qualification slots for World Cup 2018. He lasted less than a year.
The UAE, then, offers a former saint the chance of a resurrection. And he knows the landscape.
“I know the football of that area because I worked four months in Saudi Arabia,” he told ESPN Argentina. “It’s not the Emirates but I know the nature of the players.”
Superstar striker Asamoah Gyan has bitten back at the Al Ahli supporters when quizzed about his troubled loan spell, provocatively stating: “I think a lot of people do not understand the game”.
Gyan, 31, has continued to struggle for form and fitness during a season-long secondment from China’s Shanghai SIPG. He broke his duck at the fifth time of asking in the 2017 AFC Champions League with a chip during Tuesday’s 4-0 thrashing of Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent which saw the Red Knights cruise into the round of 16, but this was just a ninth effort in 22 run-outs.
This stark decline from a legendary spell at Al Ain from 2011-15, which included 95 goals in 83 Arabian Gulf League games, has led to plentiful and biting criticism.
“I think a lot of people do not understand the game,” said the Ghana skipper when quizzed about his strained relationship with the fans at Rashid Stadium. “That is what I feel, they don’t understand the game.
“People don’t feel my situation, they feel about what they see. They feel about themselves, they don’t feel for me – the player.
“All the season, because I’ve not been consistent. You cannot expect a player to be 100 per cent when he goes on and off, on and off.
“They know what I can do when I was playing consistently. I am here to prove to everybody I am still who I am, the right moment will come.
“All I need is consistency. But for me, the people here have not treated me fairly – that is what I can say.”
When asked specifically about who had treated him unfairly, Gyan replied: “The fans, the people here – that is what I can say.
“Sometimes I feel disappointed. But I always say that you can judge me when I am playing every game.
“You cannot judge me when I have injury. They expect me to perform like I used to, that is what I can say.”
These comments could see Gyan gain a heated reception on Saturday when the dethroned champions wind up their AGL commitments at home to relegated Bani Yas.
From their previous 25 top-flight dates, the ex-Sunderland and Udinese centre forward has only started eight and been substituted on five times. He has scored on five occasions and completed the full match twice.
Repeat injuries have curbed his involvement, as well as the predatory form of UAE forward Ahmed Khalil and January buy Makhete Diop. Gyan is likely to be a free agent this summer, with SIPG loathe to exorcise an option on his two-year deal signed in July 2015.
“Now I have a lot of options,” he said.
“I do not want to mention names, but there is a lot on the table. I will decide at the end of the season.”
If this was Al Ahli in “not the best situation”, as boss Cosmin Olaroiu bemoaned pre-match, the rest of the 2017 AFC Champions League should beware.
The Red Knights transcended a striking crisis, internal tumult and recent domestic acquiescence to power into the competition’s round of 16 for just the second time.
Fuelled by irrepressible Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro, who conjured a goal to savour as he playfully chipped over helpless and hapless goalkeeper Mamur Ikromov before he volleyed home, they ran rampant against overawed Uzbek League leaders Lokomotiv Tashkent to seal top spot in Group A and avoid a showdown with bitter rivals Al Ain.
“If you ask me I prefer against Al Ain, but this would not be good for Emirates because one of the teams would go out,” said Olaroiu, whose charges will now battle Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah over two legs later this month.
“I hope we’re going (to) have the chance to play against them in the semi-final and for sure, one team would be in the final.”
Faded Ghana superstar Asamoah Gyan’s delightful dinked finish topped off a rejuvenated display in the absences of Ahmed Khalil and Makhete Diop.
Dynamic UAE winger Ismail Al Hammadi was denied a stunning effort of his own when a low, 20-yard drive struck the post and rebounded in off Ikromov’s back.
Cherished nights like this have become rarer for the dethroned Arabian Gulf League holders. Others must be produced to prevail against Christian Gross’ men, who also relinquished their local league title this term.
Ahli instantly took command of a game in which just a draw was enough to guarantee progression against opponents with slim hopes. Centre-back Salmeen Khamis headed into an open goal early on to settle nerves, before three more followed in the second half.
Al Hammadi was unfortunate not to chalk one up for himself, while Gyan – for his first in five ACL games this term – and Ribeiro finished with aplomb after racing clear.
The mood at Rashid Stadium was arguably more inauspicious two years ago.
From that low point, they raced to a narrow defeat in the final. Could the scenario repeat?