The fans’ faces said it all. Frowning brows, long faces, and some impatient ones who kept looking at his watch. The stopwatch marked the 96th minute and the seconds ticked by at a brisk pace. And the result was still blank. The night at the National Stadium seemed to have written the script that every Peruvian team suffers in a Copa Libertadores: losing a crucial game at the last breath or even in a penalty shootout. Because at this point the atmosphere had the aroma of martyrdom from the twelve steps.
But Sporting Cristal, that team that was born champion and has a scarce cup lineage in our country, had planned to write its own history. And he did it hand in hand -or with the right hand- of Irven Ávila, the healthy and sacred cholo of Rímac. It was at minute 96, with the game ending, when the handful of Huracán fans located in the western stands celebrated the transitory draw. At that moment in which Tiago Nunes himself was talking with his technical assistant, perhaps reviewing who the kickers will be in penalties, Ávila made it 1-0 that sealed a historic victory for the sky-blue… and for Peruvian football, of course.
Gone was the rough start. The first play only woke up the 38,000 fans who painted Nacional in light blue. Washington Corozo got into the Argentine area and stumbled, causing the Huracán defender to fall on top of him and that confused the main referee Raphael Claus who whistled the penalty without hesitating. The decision made the stands explode and the faces of happiness were noted. However, the judges in charge of the VAR called their Brazilian colleague to review the play and then annul it.
It was the first stake in the heart of the rimense fan. And in that of Brenner Marlos, the Brazilian ‘9’ who Nunes brought as a goal solution but who until now has not been able to celebrate. Before Claus rectified his decision, Marlos was preparing to finish off. “He is Brazilian, it is impossible for him to fail”, they said in the stands, confident of the innate technique of every player born in the land of Pelé. But Brenner could never kick.
Minutes later, the forward himself culminated a great play in a great goal to, now, finally, put the locals ahead. But once again the VAR stood in the way as the toughest rival. Claus was called back to review the play on the screen next to the field, while the fans shouted insults of all colors. The judge annulled the goal due to a foul by Yotún at the start of the play and the decision sparked the ire of Tiago Nunes. The technician couldn’t believe it. From that moment on and throughout the game he did not stop claiming each play and coming up to talk to the fourth referee, who tried to calm him down.
On the field, Cristal showed her credentials. But the atmosphere was charged. That zero on the scoreboard could be treacherous. We will not know in Peruvian soccer that final in international tournaments! And the fan thought so. He didn’t say it, of course. Because he encouraged and did not stop singing. But deep inside, he felt it. And he could be seen in his faces, in his expressions of concern, in his pulling his hair every time Huracán attacked or had a free kick near the penalty area.
If one did a quick survey of the stadium, of the 38,000 fans, from the one who still dreams of the glorious campaign of 1997 to the one who is going to the stadium for the first time, from father to son, almost 90% wanted the match is over. Because -I repeat once again- we are so used to losing in the final minutes that everything seemed to indicate that it was going to be repeated. Some fans even expected the sad ending in defeat.
Nobody thought that fate was going to change, it was going to smile on them, when Tiago Nunes called Irven Ávila and Joao Grimaldo. The past and present, and the present and future of the club. The historic scorer and the jewel raised in Florida. At 63 ‘, the Brazilian coach brought both in. And at 96’, Joao assisted Irven for the winning goal. The celebration of the ‘Cholito’ was almost one of disbelief. And the same thing happened in the stands. Some even waited a bit to see if the VAR didn’t score their treble. But it didn’t happen.
The stadium exploded. It was a burst of happiness. Light blue shirts circling through the air in the stands, endless hugs in other stands between couples, parents and children and entire families. It was happiness at its best, something we are not used to seeing. In fact, Ávila’s goal was the latest for a Peruvian club to win a Cup match, according to statistician Mister Chip. One had to touch us and it was thanks to the club that became the national team that won the most times at home in the history of the competition (52), one more than the ‘U’ and twice as many as Alianza Lima (26).
It is not the Cristal of 97, although many fans went to Nacional with that historic shirt with a collar that embellished the game of Markarián’s team. But this Cristal, that of Tiago Nunes, the coach who knew how to be South American champion, has a cup lineage rarely seen in recent years by Peruvian teams. And that should be celebrated.
I have worked in the news industry for over 10 years. I have a keen interest in sports and have written for many different publications. I am currently working as an author at 24 News Recorder. I cover mostly sports news but also write about other topics such as current affairs and politics. I have a strong interest in social media and how it can be used to engage with audiences.