During this “international week” footballing lull when club play is suspended while nations hold their collective breath over the upcoming qualifiers, and club fans try to find something else to fill their time, there’s actually been one on-the-pitch event at club level which is being hailed, at least in Mexico, as “historic”.
It came in a game last night in Tegucigalpa, where the Honduran club Olimpia was hosting the Mexican side Atlante in a group-stage match in the CONCACAF Liga de Campeones–a large-scale but little-known-outside-the-Caribbean tournament that’s been underway since August. Thirty-four-year-old Buenos Aires-bred Federico Vilar, El Jefe, the charismatic, fiery and cat-quick-of-reflex keeper of the Mexican club Atlante, drove home a swerving free kick over the Olimpia wall for his side’s only goal in a 1-1 draw away to Olimpia of Honduras.
This was the longest and most impressive of the four free-kick goals Vilar has collected for Atlante over the past four seasons (the earlier ones came in league games against Necaxa and Cruz Azul and in a friendly against Colo Colo of Chile). As there are no Chilaverts or Rogerios in Mexican annals–before this year there had been only 15 goals scored by Mexican keepers, going all the way back; before Vilar all of those had been penalties or the fruits of desperate late-match goal-mouth scrums; and the only keeper in Mexico previously to record more than one goal was Rene Higuitta, who converted two penalties back in the later decades of the last millennium–Vilar’s latest wonder-goal is fairly being acknowledged as one to remember.
Has anybody ever heard of the Liga de Campeones? It didn’t seem like it on Tuesday night in Mexico City, where Cruz Azul managed a quiet 1-1 draw against Marathon of Honduras in front of what has to have been the emptiest big house in many a season.
Two relatively formidable MLS clubs were involved in the tournament’s early qualifying rounds, but the New England Revolution, winner of last summer’s Superliga competition between top Mexican and U.S. sides and already in this season’s MLS playoffs, were peremptorily dismissed in the Liga de Campeones qualifiers by the interestingly-named Joe Public (of Trinidad and Tobago) on a 6-1 aggregate (including a shock 4-0 defeat at home in Boston in the return leg).
Keep in mind, this was the MLS powerhouse that led their overall league table much of the present season, now sharing the early-exit tournament fate of such under-the-radar sides as Hankook Verde (of Costa Rica, in case you had to ask). D.C. United, meanwhile, has struggled in their group, losing at home to Saprissa of Costa Rica and away to Marathon of Honduras.
MLS teams have yet to prove they can perform outside the U.S., confirming some suspicions that their success the last few summers in the Superliga was largely a fluke, produced by the combined advantages of playing all the games at home and having the heavy fouling by bigger U.S. teams given licence akin to that afforded the armored gladiators of the NFL.
Several Mexican clubs are now playing in the tournament’s group stages, which means having to deal with a mid-week game every week–so understandably some young or otherwise sub-strength teams have been fielded, and results have been mixed.
Atlante currently stand second on points in their group to another of those well-kept-secret clubs in this tournament, a Canadian side that is so far doing a fine job of living up to its name, the Montreal Impact. Atlante’s match with Olimpia on Wednesday night was well-contested by both sides and gave good returns for the price of entry to a large and noisy home crowd (Mexican sides have so far had the curious and probably somewhat demoralizing experience of playing in front of large numbers of interested spectators only when playing away). But the sweet strike by El Jefe took just about everybody’s breath away and left in its wake a moment of stunned silence.
Vilar’s 39th-minute goal kept Atlante in front much of the night. In the 54th minute he made the kind of save (from Wilmer Velazquez) that showed why he was voted the best portero in Mexico after leading his club to the league title in the 2007 Apertura; having surrendered only eight goals in Atlante’s eleven games in the current Apertura, his work between the sticks is a big reason why they now stand second in the overall. league table on 22 points, trailing only San Luis. But Vilar is also human. To the great delight of Olimpia supporters, he was beaten in the 84th minute by Wilmer Castro’s tying goal.
Do any Boca fans remember El Jefe in his youth? Later “naturalized” as an Italian, Vilar grew up in Buenos Aires. He was born in Junin (Buenos Aires province) and signed at l5 with Boca in 1993, remaining under contract until 2000 before going to Almirante for a year and then moving on to Mexico, where after a season with second-division Acapulco he came up with Atlante.
He is now something of a legend in Mexico, for his intensity of temperament perhaps as much as for his several skills. Last summer, on a hot night in Boston, after his Atlante mates had been rudely mugged for ninety-odd minutes by New England Revolution players (most of whom stood a head taller and weighed in at least a stone or two heavier), it was Vilar who stood up to the bullies at the end of the evening–landing a sharp cuff to the face that may have surprised New England’s Jay Heaps at least as much as it hurt him, but nonetheless showed that at least one man on the Mexican side, Vilar, the captain, refused to be intimidated.
(For those who’d like to look, El Jefe’s Wednesday night special can be found on You Tube: Gol Federico Vilar A Olimpia, posted by atlantefever. From the same source there’s also a clip of his August 1986 free-kick score against Cruz Azul: Gol de Federico Vilar contra Cruz Azul. And that one, plus Vilar’s February 2004 strike aginst Necaxa, along with all the goals scored by Mexican keepers up to 2006, can be found as goles de porteros, from almodovar 1986. Finally, to see how well some of Vilar’s younger club-mates have been playing in front of him at their better moments in this tournament, check out the neat swirling multi-touch movement from their first group stage game, posted as Atlante 1-0 Olimpia by Potros De Hierro.)
This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).