Winning is not everything in Peru
Just as a flower can grow on a dung heap, so one of football's most heartwarming stories of the year began with a depressing staple of the South American game - the mass brawl. It came in the first leg of the final of the Peruvian Championship.
The away side, San Martin, are something of a curiosity. They were set up by a university in Lima less than seven years ago and have very few fans. Last year, when I saw them in a Lima derby against Sporting Cristal, they had brought a grand total of 33 supporters across town - plus a dancing mascot dressed up as a tooth.
Why a tooth? Because the most animated fans of the club's tiny support base - composed of students from the university - are studying dentistry.
Despite the lack of backing, this fledgling club were crowned Peruvian champions in 2007 and 2008. Now, in 2010, they were going for a third title, up against Leon of Huanuco, who have fans but no titles.
Leon are from the central highlands behind Lima. It was only in the mid-60s that the Peruvian Championship was extended to include clubs from outside the capital.
Leon made their first division debut in 1972 and, like many provincial clubs, have struggled to establish themselves. After a lengthy absence, this has been their first year back in the top flight. Coached by former international striker Franco Navarro, they have assembled an experienced squad and for the first time in the club's history were in contention to become national champions.
Nerves were jangling, then, when Leon staged the first leg of the final. When Christian Ramos, San Martin's impressive centre-back, clashed with Ronaille Calheira, Leon's Brazilian striker, it was the catalyst for a huge confrontation. Both teams squared up, the substitutes were off the bench and getting involved, and referee Manuel Garay needed some time to restore order before sending off four players.
One of them was Gustavo Rodas, Leon's Argentine attacking midfielder. Now 24, Rodas was something of a child prodigy. He was a star for Argentina at Under-17 level and featured in the Newell's Old Boys first team at the age of 16.
Perhaps it all came too soon. As the years went by, Rodas did not make the impact that had been expected of him and drifted first to Colombia, then to Peru. This year at Leon, he finally made the breakthrough. For the first time in his career, he was a key figure in a senior championship. Some rated him as the best player in the Peruvian league. He scored goals and also set them up as Leon enjoyed their best ever campaign.
That red card, though, would rule the little attacking midfielder out of the decisive second leg of the final. Until, bizarrely, he was given a reprieve. The ADFP, the association of professional clubs that organises the Peruvian league, absolved Rodas - and only Rodas. The other three players sent off in the first leg were told they must serve the customary suspension.
It was an extraordinary decision, with no apparent justification. In his report, referee Garay stated that Rodas had been sent off for swinging punches at an opponent. Were the ADFP playing politics? After all, there was little to lose by rubbing San Martin up the wrong way - they have hardly any supporters. Even in the second leg, Leon had far more fans in the stadium, coming down from the mountains for their big day.
And now they had the chance of watching their outstanding midfield talent. The first leg had finished as a 1-1 draw. There was everything to play for in the rematch and now Rodas could make a vital contribution.
Initially, coach Franco Navarro was pleased to be able to count on his playmaker but, as the hours counted down toward the big match, he became increasingly uneasy. Rodas might have been cleared to play but was this morally correct? Clearly not. He had been sent off and should serve his suspension.
Navarro gathered his players and persuaded them that his course of action was the right one. Rodas would not play in the second leg. He would not even be on the bench. They would have to win their first ever title without him.
They failed. San Martin won the game 2-1 to secure their third championship. But the victorious coach, Anibal Ruiz, put the outcome in perspective. One of the game's grand old men, the Uruguayan Ruiz took Paraguay to the 2006 World Cup. There is nothing in South American football that he has not seen - but he was truly touched by what happened in the second leg of the final.
Pablo Vitti (left) scored the second of San Martin's goals in the second leg. Photo: Getty Images
"I want to stress something which is more important than the result," said Ruiz. "I have to highlight the gesture of Franco Navarro, which elevates Peruvian football and gives nobility to our profession."
Indeed, Navarro had the strength to remember one of the great truths of football, something so central to the essence of the game but which is forgotten with alarming ease. Football is not just about what you do, it is about how you do it.
Leon de Huanuco lost the final of the Peruvian championship but they have won plenty of admirers. Early next year, they will make their debut in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. I, for one, will be wishing them good luck.
Comments on the piece in the space below. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I was wondering whatever became of Lulinha. I seem to remember him being touted, as many Brazilian youngsters are, as one of the next wonderkids to emerge from Brazil. At one point, it seemed that Chelsea were close to signing him but nothing ever came of it. What happened to him and where is he now?
A) Perhaps there are similarities here with the case of Gustavo Rodas. Lulinha was an Under-17 star - he was quite superb in the South American Under-17 Championships in 2007. But then perhaps it all came too soon - he was thrown into the Corinthians first team at a time when the club were fighting relegation. Youngsters should never have to carry a team, especially one as big as Corinthians, and it was all too much for him.
Lulinha has yet to pick up any momentum at senior level. He went to Portugal, first to Estoril, and is now with Olhanense, where he seems to spend most of his time on the bench. There is still time for him to come good. As much as anything, it will depend on his mental strength, on how he reacts to the fact that the path to glory is going to be much harder than he thought a few years ago.
Q) In the World Club Cup, how has Internacional's defeat by African champions TP Mazembe been received back in Brazil? I watched most of the match, but would you say that Inter were significantly under par, or just that Mazembe rode their luck and took their chances when they arrived?
A) It has been received very badly. Brazilian football can be a bit contemptuous of less traditional regions, so as soon as the second goal went in the knives were being sharpened and expressions such as "historic disgrace" being pulled out. I certainly expected Inter to get past Mazembe but, unlike four years ago, I had little confidence in then winning the title.
There is no doubt that the 2010 Internacional side is more attractive than the one that beat Barcelona in 2006 but also more vulnerable. Indeed, Mazembe did to Inter what Inter did to Barcelona in 2006 - frustrated them and hit them on the counter-attack. The sale of Taison after the Libertadores win left the team with less penetration, while centre-back Indio, at 35, has reached the stage where he can be exposed. It is early days but I am optimistic that in a few years the South American champions will be strong enough to come out and play an expansive game against any opponents.