Atletico Tucuman's tumultuous Copa Libertadores journey
After waiting 115 years, Atletico Tucuman were late for the biggest game in the club's history.
From the northern provinces of Argentina, Tucuman are making their debut in the Copa Libertadores. A week ago, in front of their own fans in the first leg of the qualifying round, they drew 2-2 with El Nacional of Ecuador.
It was a disappointing result, putting a lot of pressure on the return game in Quito, 2,800 metres above sea level. The altitude is usually a problem for non-acclimated visitors, and Tucuman followed standard practice. They travelled to Guayaquil, at sea level on Ecuador's Pacific coast, with plans to fly up to Quito on the afternoon of the game. With the players less exposed to the conditions, the physiological thinking is that the altitude will then have less effect.
This is all very well -- as long as there are no delays. But Tucuman, who can perhaps claim inexperience, had not got the basics right. The paperwork for their flight to Quito was not in order and, in a continent still traumatised by the Chapecoense air disaster at the end of November, permission to fly was not granted.
The club had to rush around in a panic trying to fix up another flight, while the clock was ticking.
The game was supposed to kick off at 7.15 p.m. local time. Tucuman were nowhere to be seen. According to the regulations, a wait of 45 minutes is permissible.
After three quarters of an hour, there was still no sign of the Argentines. They reached Quito airport and sped to the stadium. CONMEBOL ignored the regulations and ordered the game to go ahead. El Nacional, under protest, agreed to play, and an hour and a half late, the game kicked off.
Tucuman, though, had not brought their kit. Fortunately for them, the South American Under-20 Championships is currently taking place, using that very stadium, the Atahualpa. Atletico Tucuman, then, took the field in the shirts of Argentina's Under-20 side -- which added an extra air of revenge to the proceedings.
On Saturday night, that same pitch had been the stage for Ecuador's Under-20s to win a convincing 3-0 victory over Argentina. Atletico Tucuman could now make history and avenge that result, against a club set up by Ecuador's armed forces which refuses to select foreign players.
The odds were clearly against an away win. Tucuman's preparation was, to say the least, some way short of ideal, and it was asking a great deal to go out and win in these conditions. But the Argentines had two things going for them.
The first was the weakness of the opposition. This was not the El Nacional side which had qualified for the Libertadores. A financial crisis meant that all the leading players had been sold, and some cut price replacements hurriedly signed. The home side, then, could boast neither individual quality nor team togetherness.
Moreover, the team had the call of history on their side. This could be their glorious day. A sizeable contingent of supporters had made their way up from the north of Argentina. Some had arrived in time to see the defeat of the Under-20 side on Saturday night. The little club from Tucuman could realize their destiny during those 90 minutes.
Star striker Fernando Zampedri had already missed a couple of chances when his big moment came. Just past the hour mark, left-back Fernando Evangelista went on the overlap, his cross lopped off a defender and Zampedri looped a header back across goal and nestled inside the post.
Thereafter, it was a case of Tucuman bringing everyone behind the ball and hanging on to their lead. So limited were El Nacional that they created just one chance in that final half hour. Right at the end, former international striker Felix Borja sent a bicycle kick just wide. Keeper Cristian Lucchetti would not have got there had it been on target. It was a shot worthy of a goal.
But Atletico Tucuman's gargantuan effort in such difficult circumstances paid off and was worthy of the prize -- qualification to the next stage.
And if it all ends for Tucuman in the next round against Junior of Colombia, then at least, after 115 years, the provincial Argentine club has written its name into Libertadores history.
But they might be well advised to sort out the paperwork for next week's flight to Barranquilla.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.