Heartbreak and glory: is Carlos Tevez’s third spell at Boca coming to an end?

On Sunday night, the Copa Diego Maradona finished in exactly the way the man it was named after would have wanted: his beloved Boca Juniors as champions, defeating Banfield on penalties, and his spiritual heir Carlos Tevez lifting the trophy.

It was Tevez’s fourth piece of silverware since returning to Boca for a third spell in 2018, but it came in a week that was bittersweet, a week that in many ways summed up this final stint at his boyhood club.

When Tevez returned to Boca once again after an ill-fated season in China in 2017, he was clear about what he wanted to achieve.

After a successful career that had taken him to the top of the European game and made him wealthier than he could possibly have imagined, he had one desire left to fulfil. “I come back,” he said, almost sheepishly, at the time, “because I want to win the Copa Libertadores, like every fan.”

It is a feat he managed as a teenager in 2003, but the desire to become one of the legendary few to win it twice with the Xeneize clearly still burned within.

Yet last Wednesday the opportunity slipped from his grasp in painful fashion for the third time in successive years.

Boca travelled to play Brazilian club Santos in the second leg of their semi-final, having drawn the first game 0-0 at the Bombonera. Their great rivals River Plate had gone out of the tournament to Palmeiras the night before, so they would not have to face the intimidating prospect of another Superclassico continental final.

But Boca put in an uncharacteristically meek performance, allowing Santos to dominate completely and losing 3-0.

The manner of the loss would have hurt Tevez as much as the defeat itself, and his anger was clear to see during the game. An Argentinian television camera that followed him throughout caught him castigating team-mates after the goals, gesticulating wildly, and swearing to himself out loud.

His own performance was not at the level that he would have wanted either, which surely added to the intensity of his frustration.

Sunday’s final Copa Diego Maradona final against Banfield, then, brought a chance to right that wrong, or at least to provide a little consolation.

Tevez did not play from the start, for unfortunate reasons we will come to later. But by the time he did get on, Boca were a goal to the good – a wonder-strike from Colombian midfielder Edwin Cardona having broken the deadlock after an hour.

Soon after Tevez’s introduction, team-mate Emanuel Mas got himself sent off for a second yellow and Diego Gonzalez left the field with a nasty-looking knee injury. Having used all their subs, Boca were down to nine and Banfield equalised in the final seconds of stoppage time.

After such a late goal, Boca nerves would doubtless have been jangling. Fortunately, they had the man they needed to settle them.

Carlitos stepped up to take the first penalty, and, he said later: “The [2008] Champions League final came back to me, and I took it the same as against Chelsea.”

It worked. The ball squeezed past the fingers of the goalkeeper and into the corner. Boca went on to score all of their kicks, and with Jorge Rodriguez missing for Banfield, the title was blue and gold. The trophy with the image of a former Boca No.10 emblazoned on it was thrust into the arms of the current Boca No.10.

The questions now surround Tevez’s future.

This was another domestic title to add to the one he won in 2018 and the one he won last year, when, symbolically, he scored the winning goal against Maradona’s Gimnasia side to win take the trophy from River on the final day of the season.

But this most recent stint at Boca has not been entirely easy. In the second half of 2018 and the first half of 2019, he looked a shadow of the player we got used to watching in Manchester and Turin, and Boca director Jorge Bermudez at one point referred to him as a “former footballer”.

In the fateful, dramatic Libertadores final against River at the end of 2018, Tevez, without a natural position in Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s 4-3-3, started neither leg

And in the following season, he continued to cut a peripheral figure under new boss Gustavo Alfaro. Again, he was left on the bench as Boca lost to River in the Libertadores, this time 2-0 in the first leg of the semi-final in October 2019.

Tevez was brought into the team for the return fixture but could not do enough to turn the tie around.

The disappointment again was overwhelming for Boca fans, of which he is one of the hardcore, but for him personally it was a turning point. Alfaro was sacked, and Miguel Angel Russo, the last man to win the Libertadores with Boca, in 2007, was brought in by new club vice-president Juan Roman Riquelme.

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Carlos Tevez celebrates

READ: El Diez y El 10: The curious relationship between Maradona and Riquelme

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Russo immediately changed to a 4-4-1-1 shape that accommodated Tevez perfectly, and Boca’s Apache started to produce, entering the wonderful run of form that brought that last-day-of-the-season glory in March last year.

The hope then was that that form would carry into the Libertadores, but of course plans were interrupted by the pandemic. And following football’s return, Boca did not quite click in continental competition.

They were fortunate to scrape through their round-of-16 tie with Internacional and had to come from behind to win their quarter-final with Racing Club. Finally, Santos proved a bridge too far.

For Tevez, in addition to the emotional pain inflicted by Boca’s failure to reach another Libertadores final, this year has been particularly tough personally. His idol and friend Diego Maradona died in November and now his father is at death’s door, suffering from complications of Covid.

That was the reason that Tevez did not start on Sunday, for he was only able to join up with the squad the day before the game. Afterwards, he was interviewed on the pitch and, visibly emotional, said: “Lamentably, my old man will not make it. It is a difficult moment for my family and for me.”

Asked if he would continue playing despite all those personal issues, he was clear: “Rest assured, I’m going to stay at Boca. I’m not going to do the same as when I went to China. I’m going to stay and continue, I’ve still got a lot to give.”

His current deal runs out in June 2021, so Tevez will stay at least for the group stage of the 2021 Libertadores – which starts just two weeks after the 2020 edition’s final – and the upcoming Copa de Primera Division, another short-form domestic tournament that will run from February to May.

As for what will follow that, we will have to see. Tevez’s relationship with Riquelme is famously fraught and it is Riquelme, in his position as vice-president for football, who will dictate the terms of a new deal.

If Boca progress through their group in the Libertadores, though, Tevez will surely be tempted to give it one more go.

By Joshua Law

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