FIFA Club World Cup, FIFA World Cup

Guarding the entrance to the River Plate Museum is a huge statue of club idol Angel Labruna. Labruna is River and River is Labruna. While the Buenos Aires outfit has had many icons in its 117-year history and Labruna was its indisputable figurehead for many decades, he is no longer alone, having been joined Marcelo Gallardo, who now enjoys the same stature.

The Copa Libertadores final win over Boca Juniors has elevated the standing of the man they call El Muñeco (“The Doll”). Already adored by the River family, Gallardo’s popularity has taken on a whole new dimension following the victory over the club’s age-old rivals in the mother of all finals.

“It’s an achievement that will stand forever. I don’t think anything can top this,” the coach told the Argentinian media. As far as the fans are concerned, Gallardo is an alchemist who has taken them to state of bliss, one they hope will continue at the FIFA Club World Cup. explains how the coach achieved this guru status at a club where winning has long been the rule and not the exception.

Restoring River to their rightful place
When Gallardo took over in the middle of 2014, supporters were still recovering from the trauma of the club’s relegation to the second tier in 2011.

River had just won the league title under Ramon Diaz, the only one of their many idols who came close to Labruna. His resignation led to the appointment of El Muñeco. Though a River man through and through and a very popular player, he lacked coaching experience. The sense of uncertainty was heightened by the fact he had been out of a job for two years and brought very few players in on taking up the job.

Gallardo made a massive impact nevertheless, both in terms of results and style of play, embarking on a tenure that has understandably had its highs and lows but in which, over the course of four and a half years, he has been able to match Diaz as the club’s most successful coach of all time with nine trophies: 

  • Two Copa Libertadores
  • One Copa Sudamericana
  • Two Recopa Sudamericanas
  • Two Argentinian Cups
  • One Argentinian Super Cup
  • One Copa Suruga

International success
Despite having won a record number of Argentinian league titles, River have always struggled to replicate that level of success on the international stage.

Only three continental titles came their way prior to 1998, two of them Libertadores. Then came a long drought marked by some embarrassing defeats, all while Boca were enjoying the most glorious period in their history.

Under Gallardo that embarrassment has given way to pride, as River began to show an ability to win tough away matches when the pressure was really on, a gift they demonstrated in overcoming the odds to beat Gremio in Porto Alegre in this year’s Copa semi-final. Needing two goals in the last ten minutes to advance to the final, River got them.

They showed their grit again the final against Boca, coming from behind three times and kicking on to win.

Turning the tables on Boca
From the early 1990s onwards, El Xeneize had the upper hand on River. Despite fielding brilliant, championship-winning teams, some of them featuring Gallardo, Los Millonarios invariably came up short in the clasico.

Since taking over as coach, however, Gallardo has changed that dynamic, over the course of two finals (in this year’s Argentinian Super Cup and the Libertadores) and two other knockout ties (in the semi-finals of the 2014 Copa Sudamericana semi-finals and the last 16 of the 2015 Libertadores).

Though Gallardo’s River went into two of those ties as clear underdogs, they won all four and did not lose a single match out of seven (the second leg of the 2015 Libertadores tie was suspended, with the first leg having finished goalless). And in all four competitions they were crowned champions.

An iron will
While River have long been known for playing cultured football, they have sometimes lacked the character to win big matches. And in the period between 2000 and 2014 they suffered more lows than highs.

Gallardo’s teams are feared for their intensity and winning mentality, and he has gone to every effort to blend the club’s love for entertaining football with a desire to dominate the opposition.

In the 50 knockout ties he has taken charge of in domestic and international competitions, he has overseen victory in no fewer than 42 of them.

He has also recovered from his darkest hour as River coach, which came in the semi-finals of the 2017 Copa Libertadores, when his side let slip a three-goal lead in the space of 45 minutes.

“What keeps you going in the toughest moments is attitude,” he has said on more than one occasion. “You forge that attitude through the way you work and by taking every training session as if it were the last.”

A sense of belonging
A scheming and talented No10, Gallardo won six league titles and two international trophies as a River player.

“I’m a son of this club,” he has said. He has imbibed the River philosophy since the age of 12 and knows how to pass it on to others. The fans feel that he is one of them.

A strong leader, he has built his authority on taking a direct approach both inside and outside the dressing room, regardless of who his messages are aimed at.

That authority is also founded on his tactical astuteness. His ability to detect chinks in the opposition armour and rectify mistakes in time have decided many a match during his tenure.

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