Club América midfielder Osvaldo Martinez had no hesitations when he stepped up take his penalty kick.
The 30-year-old sprinted towards the penalty spot and rocketed his shot past Tigres goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman. As the crowd in the Estadio Azteca erupted into roaring cheers, Martinez casually slipped off his left shin guard and kissed an image of his family that was placed on the front.
The goal was the last nail in the coffin for Tigres UANL. Los Auriazules had already lost 2-0 to América in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final at home and were now down 2-1 in the second and final leg of the series with just a few minutes left.
Tigres pushed for a last second goal, but is was too little too late. After the final whistle blew and championship shirts were distributed, Las Aguilas made their way to the center circle and prayed.
With a second consecutive Champions League title in hand, América had secured a trip back to Japan for this year’s FIFA Club World Cup.
Tigres manager Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti knew exactly what was at stake. The Brazilian was struggling for nearly two months in the domestic Liga MX competition and desperately needed the CONCACAF Champions League title as a distraction. It was imperative for Ferretti to emerge out of the first half of 2016 with something positive, something tangible that he could point to if fans criticized his poor run of form in the Mexican league.
After finishing 2015 with the Apertura title in hand—each year is split up into two seasons: Clausura and Apertura—fans had high hopes for the 2016 Clausura season. How could they not? The Monterrey side had a recent championship under its belt and arguably the league’s best player, French international striker Andre-Pierre Gignac.
I stay glued to my television whenever Gignac touches the ball, hoping for a glimpse of him scoring a golazo live. At his best, it’s genuinely a thrill to watch the talented and powerful striker play. I can’t exactly say the same for his team.
As the 30-year-old has continued to rack-up goals this season, it hasn’t been enough to salvage Tigres spot in the playoffs, the Liguilla. If they lose this Saturday against Cruz Azul, they won’t finish in a Liguilla-worthy place in the top eight, a disastrous result for last season’s champions.
The game-plan for Ferretti was simple: win the Champions League and avoid the supporters and aficionados disapproval. Unfortunately for the manager, and perhaps myself, América already had a 2-0 lead after the first leg of the final on April 20th and were one step closer to clinching another title of their own.
As much as I hate to admit it, Las Aguilas are dominating Mexican soccer. The Mexico City side has won numerous championships over the past few years and are the fierce rivals of a certain team I support—Club Deportivo Guadalajara, or simply, Chivas. That being said, even the most diehard of Chivas fans have to recognize América’s recent good form.
With more league titles than any other team in Mexico, and the unofficial but highly popular motto “odiame más,” or “hate me more,” it’s easy to see why América garners so much hatred and adoration from fans.
There are always high expectations from América’s supporters and ownership, and this season many were hungry for a return to FIFA’s Club World Cup. Last year, Las Aguilas embarrassed themselves after losing 2-1 to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande in their first match of the competition. Determined to return, and considering the fact that this October will mark the club’s 100-year anniversary, there appeared to be no better time to fight for a title amongst the world’s best.
All that was standing in their way was 90 more minutes of futbol and a Tigres side hoping to pull-off a surprise result in América’s immense Estadio Azteca.
The second and final leg kicked off, the camera panned out, and well, to be honest, the first 45 minutes didn’t live up to the hype. The occasional flash of a yellow América jersey darted across my screen, usually from midfielder Rubens Sambueza, but the team only managed to put one shot on target during the first half.
As for Los Auriazules, Ferretti employed his usual possession-heavy and cautious style of futbol. This tactic has worked in the past for the manager, but on Wednesday night it appeared to be an odd decision from a squad that needed to overcome a two-goal deficit.
The only true highlight from the first 35 minutes emerged when disgruntled fans began to shower the field with flashes of lights from laser pointers. I’m not condoning the use of the pens, but it was at least a talking point. Something to banter about online with the thousands of other fans who were hoping for a riveting moment of action. After the constant commercials and promotion of the game beforehand, we were all anxious for something.
Our prayers were soon answered.
The goal wasn’t a trademark Gignac golazo, but it was a goal nonetheless. In the 39th minute, the striker was left all alone in the 18-yard-box. Big mistake. While all four América defenders focused in on Rafael Sobis’ shot, the richocet sent the ball back to Sobis who looked to his left and must have known that a goal was imminent before even making the pass to the wide open striker.
Gignac easily finished the opportunity and provided the first, and much-needed, goal of the match. The TV camera cut to pockets of Tigres fans cheering in the Azteca and then to América’s now stoic manager, Ignacio Ambriz.
Ambriz couldn’t stumble now. He knew of the fickle nature of his job. If he lost this title, and Las Aguilas’ chance to chase a Club World Cup title during their centennial-anniversary, many would call for his departure. Although they still had a narrow 2-1 aggregate lead over Tigres, one more goal from Los Auriazules would have been enough to send the game into extra time, so Ambriz needed another goal to ensure a safe finish in the series.
After another slow start, the second half truly started to pick up when América’s Michael Arroyo was introduced in the 65th minute. For neutrals watching, the inclusion of the Ecuadorian attacker was a welcome addition to the game; a catalyst on the field with his runs, he had the attention of the entire stadium whenever the ball landed at his feet. Three minutes into his arrival, Arroyo danced with the ball past four Tigres players and took a chance from 25 yards out.
When the ball hit the back of the net it gave me chills. Even when my biggest rivals score, I can’t help but feel a small rush when I see a fantastic opportunity. Arroyo’s was no exception.
Suddenly, the match felt like a final.
Even though I tend to dislike Las Aguilas, I can’t deny that it was entertaining to watch them during that second half. The Mexico City side looked hungry for another goal and were eager to push the aggregate scoreline from 3-1 to 4-1. The crowd responded to the spirit of the club with chants and cheers that almost made it seem as if the series was already won.
Tigres now needed two goals, but lacked the energy and zeal to fight back. Gignac only managed one off-target shot in the second half. Tigres needed a moment of magic to not only save the title, but to save their season too.
In the 86th minute, América’s Miguel Samudio hit the ground hard after Tigres defender Hugo Ayala’s poor challenge in the box. The defender immediately looked back at the referee who showed no reluctance when he blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot. If Las Aguilas scored, the match would be all but over.
Ferretti would be on his way to an ill-fated season and Ambriz would lift his first-ever trophy for the team. With a Champions League title in hand, and a ticket booked for the Club World Cup and a shot at redemption, América would surely be on its way to an historic 100th season.
Osvaldo Martinez stepped up to take the shot.