"Before [Boca Juniors’ striker Emmanuel] Gigliotti took the penalty, everybody was protesting, there was chaos in the stadium and [River Plate keeper] Marcelo [Barovero] was breathing deeply."

Sandra Rossi, the specialist in applied neuroscience in sport who works with the River Plate squad, remembers every detail of that scene – and it makes sense that should be the case. Gigliotti’s penalty was the ‘taking of the Bastille’ moment for River under coach Marcelo Gallardo.

While yes, prior to that game on 27 November 2014, Los Millonarios had produced several brilliant displays in the Argentinian championship, and not for nothing were they in that Copa Sudamericana semi-final, said Gigliotti spot-kick was the foundation stone for River’s recent attack on the record books. Just 14 seconds of the second leg of that Sudamericana semi had passed and the atmosphere in the Estadio Monumental had turned from celebration to despair in the blink of an eye.

Once again they appeared destined to come unstuck against ‘the enemy’ Boca, that most painful of conquerors in every previous non-domestic knockout tie between the pair. Yet with the River faithful boiling over with indignation and a sense of impending doom, their keeper Barovero was breathing deeply, concentrating hard.

“For a long time I’ve been working on having that clear-headedness you need in extreme situations,” explained Barovero, River’s keeper and captain to FIFA.com, praising the advances made with Doctor Rossi and previously with Marcelo Marquez, a psychologist he worked with when at Velez Sarsfield. “I’ve learned small details that help [in those situations] and which, fortunately, we can always call to hand.”

Prior to Gigliotti’s penalty, Barovero used what he had learned: he breathed deeply, he relaxed and he found his focus. And when the strike flew his way, he flung up his right hand to deflect the ball and trigger arguably the most emotion-laden ‘no gol’ in River fans’ memories. Indeed, he says it himself: that save changed his life.

“That’s because of what it meant for us; because of a lot of things we were seeing in the stadium; for all the kids dressed in keeper shirts; that green shirt that really stands out [and which Barovero was wearing that night],” explained the custodian, on the atmosphere surrounding his pivotal intervention, River going on to grab the tie’s only goal via Leonardo Pisculichi.

“If we hadn’t won that game [I don’t know what would have happened]. And if we hadn’t gone to be crowned Sudamericana champions… Things fade with time. Our work [as goalkeepers] doesn’t stand out much if you don’t win, particularly in a team like this. That save has gone down in memory thanks to everything we went on to achieve afterwards.”

That Sudamericana 2014 was the start, with the Recopa Sudamericana, the Suruga Bank Championship and, the pinnacle of South American club football, the Copa Libertadores all following in 2015, the latter the biggest achievement so far of a keeper who – when a youngster playing for second-tier Atletico Rafaela – would have been happy “just to be able to make a living doing what I’ve always dreamed of”.

The lessons learned from goalkeeping icons such as Carlos Goyen, a Toyota Intercontinental Cup winner in 1984 with Independiente; Ubaldo Fillol, a FIFA World Cup™ winner with Argentina in 1978; and Alberto Montes, current keepers’ coach at River, dubbed “a maestro” by Barovero, all enabled him to improve technically, make himself appear bigger between the sticks despite a relatively slim frame, and sharpen up “my thought-process, my decision-making, in knowing that you need to be focused for 90 minutes and able to read the phases of a game”.  

Barcelona, a dream conquest
All this progress and achievement gradually allowed Barovero to nudge aside his original aim, to merely “make a living” through the game. “Everything just kept coming off for me, one thing after another and ever bigger honours,” said the 31-year-old. “Everything that I won was, at that moment, my greatest achievement. Let’s hope the upward progression continues,” added a shotstopper blessed with, according to coach Gallardo, “enormous composure”.  

“It’s what all the players are dreaming of, both myself and the whole squad,” explained Barovero, on what would be the next and highest step on the ladder, beating FC Barcelona in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015. And though Chelo is not your typical chest-beating skipper, being calm and quiet in speech and gesture, following Wednesday’s semi-final win over Sanfrecce Hiroshima – which featured three fine saves – his celebratory fist pump in the direction of the River fans was uncharacteristically vigorous.

“That was a game we had to win and it was a tough one. Not in footballing terms so much, what made it hard was the emotional side of things,” said Barovero. “We came into it on the back of being knocked out of a cup competition [against Huracan in the Copa Sudamericana], which is a first for us recently. The moment the match finished, the emotion of having done our duty and getting where we wanted to be all came out. This is the biggest thing we’ve experienced. That’s how I’m living it and that’s how I feel about it.”

Echoing that sentiment, seemingly the entire River family is on tenterhooks, ahead of what many consider the most important game in the club’s 114-year history, even taking into account the 35 league titles, three Copa Libertadores and one Intercontinental Cup already in Los Millonarios’ trophy cabinet.

For others though, that Gigliotti penalty save will never lose its significance. On the very morning of that game, Barovero had discovered that if the Boca striker took a quick run-up he would drive a shot across goal, while a staggered run-up meant an inside-of-the-foot effort. Come the evening, among all the chaos, he found the clear-headedness to draw on what he had learned and put it into practice.

A long-time admirer of Barça, he prefers not to reveal whether he has any secret tips on denying glory for Lionel Messi, Neymar or Luis Suarez. “But the morning of the game’s not here yet,” he concluded, with a grin.