If, at the start of the 2019- 20 Superliga season, you had been told that Boca Juniors would take the title with Miguel Ángel Russo on the bench and Juan Román Riquelme sitting up in the directors’ box – not to mention that the defeated coach in the decisive game would be Diego Maradona – you would have been well within your rights to back away slowly and request urgent psychiatric assistance.
The Xeneize came back in the new year under new management and with a new face on the bench. That breath of fresh air more than compensated for the lack of transfer activity that had some fans doubting the Jorge Amor Ameal–Riquelme ticket, almost even before they had settled into Boca’s offices.
Having begun life under Russo, who was last spotted at Boca taking the club to second place at the end of 2007, having led them to Copa Libertadores glory (the edition known universally as the ‘Riquelme Copa’ thanks to the current vice-president’s wizardry throughout) six months earlier, with a stuttering draw at home to Independiente, everything seemed to just click. Six consecutive wins, which yielded 16 goals in favour and just a single strike conceded, saw the giants roar back into contention in a championship that looked all but lost.
Even so, few could have imagined River Plate’s jitters at the final post, drawing against both Defensa y Justicia and Atlético Tucumán to throw away what would have been their first league title since 2014. A win in either one of those games would have sealed Marcelo Gallardo’s maiden Superliga crown, completing the coach’s near-clean sweep of major trophies since he walked back through the doors of the Monumental, weeks after that last triumph to take over from Ramón Díaz.
Fate had other ideas, and the spoils belonged to a man who is perhaps El Muñeco’s antithesis as a trainer; a well-travelled journeyman 20 years h i s sen ior, who du r i ng Gallardo’s tenure has worked at no less than six different clubs and recently won a battle far more important than any league or cup.
In 2017, Miguel Ángel Russo was diagnosed with prostate cancer while working in Colombia at Millonarios. He continued to appear on the bench, directing the Bogotá club to Superliga glory, just two days after undergoing a bout of chemotherapy. The coach eventually underwent an operation but his recovery was complicated further by a hospital-acquired infection. None of his players knew: only his family and coaching team were entrusted with knowledge of the illness.
“I decided to keep working. I didn’t want to be on the outside, although at times it was hard and, sometimes, inexplicable for my oncologist,” he confided to the Coaches’ Voice in an interview.“I remember when I came to the clinic a little after the first chemo session. ‘I don’t understand’, he said to me. ‘How is it possible that only 48 hours later you are sitting on the bench in the cold and rain. I cannot believe it’.”
Russo happily made a full recovery and, after leaving Millonarios towards the end of 2018, continued overseas with short, underwhelming spells with Alianza Lima and Cerro Porteño. When Boca called, though, the experienced coach jumped at the chance to return.
The 63-year-old’s more dynamic, high-speed football has injected fresh life into a squad that was chafing at the bit under predecessor Gustavo Alfaro, where safety reigned with no unnecessary risks taken at any time. They paid him back with a stunning run of form that culminated in the Bombonera last Saturday, overshadowing Maradona’s much-anticipated return in a 1-0 win for the hosts in order to kick off wild celebrations across Buenos Aires.
That is not to say that Alfaro's contribution should be overlooked. The former Arsenal and Huracán boss deserves credit for shaping Argentine football's most uncompromising, impenetrable defensive unit, built on the talent of central pair Carlos Izquierdoz and Lisandro López – a Primera champion under Alfaro at Arsenal – and Paraguay international Junior Alonso.
In 16 Superliga matches prior to the coaching switch Boca conceded a mere seven goals: the foundations were there for Russo to take advantage with a slightly more adventurous strategy and Alfaro's replacement recognised that, graciously acknowledging the previous boss amid the joy and euphoria of Boca's post-match celebrations.
It is the new man, though, who is the toast of La Boca, and having followed up Superliga success with a Libertadores romp at the expense of Independiente Medellín this week Xeneize fans everywhere can only hope Russo's enviable energy and natural instinct for the game can prevail again in the tournament they so dearly covet.