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No goalies, no problem: Covid-ravaged South American club earns improbable win

Enzo Pérez usually plays midfielder for River Plate. He was forced into goal for a Copa Libertadores match, even though he was injured. (Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/Pool Via Reuters)

Imagine a scenario in which the Green Bay Packers were so ravaged by injury that Aaron Rodgers — who, in this hypothetical, also was hurt — had to play safety. Or that an ailing Alex Ovechkin was forced into goal because his Washington Capitals teammates were so improbably shorthanded.

Now imagine those teams winning.

This unlikely scenario played out Wednesday night in South America during a game between Argentine titan River Plate and Independiente Santa Fe of Colombia in the Copa Libertadores, the continent’s version of the Champions League. Down 20 players because of a coronavirus outbreak, among them all four goalkeepers, River Plate was forced to use 35-year-old midfielder Enzo Pérez in goal and played the entire game without any substitutes.

It won, 2-1.

Pérez was chosen as River Plate’s backstop only because he had a muscle injury and would have been ineffective as an attacking player. Nonetheless, he stopped four shots and let only one goal through with his team already up 2-0 in the second half.

“My goalkeeper teammates wrote to me, I asked some things, too, did some training with the goalkeeping coach and he gave me some advice,” Pérez said. “With all the adrenaline I had I got a little lost and I always used the penalty spot as a reference.”

“To speak about the match has no sense because of what we have lived in this time and what we suffered with covid-19,” he added.

Said River Plate Coach Marcelo Gallardo: “He was very brave to take the position. It was not easy. I have to highlight that because it’s not easy to play in a position that you know nothing about.”

Per ESPN, River Plate was forced to use fifth-string goalkeeper Leonardo Diaz on Sunday in a domestic-league match against Boca Juniors but did not include him on the roster for Thursday’s Copa Libertadores match, even though CONMEBOL — soccer’s governing body in South America — is allowing teams to list 50 available players for continental matches. River Plate listed only 32 for the game against Santa Fe, and 20 of them were out because of the coronavirus. One more, 38-year-old center-back Javier Pinola, could not play because of a broken forearm, leaving the team with the bare-minimum 11 players.

According to the Associated Press, CONMEBOL would not allow River Plate to add two youth-team goalkeepers to its roster for Wednesday’s game.

Nonetheless, Fabrizio Angileri got River Plate on the board in the third minute and Julián Álvarez followed with another goal three minutes later. Pérez didn’t have to fend off a serious challenge until the 25th minute and could not be blamed for the goal he did allow in the 73rd minute, with River Plate’s exhausted defense collapsing in front of him.

“What … happened today will be not in my history, but in the history of our club, in the history of River Plate, in the history of our institution,” Gallardo said.

“I believe that we have never had a situation like this one today. I am sure this will be remembered and bookmarked. It was not normal to play under the conditions that we did.”

River Plate doesn’t play again until Tuesday’s match against Fluminense of Brazil in its final Copa Libertadores group-stage match. The Argentine club will presumably have a viable goalkeeper by then, as it leads the group with nine points but needs a draw to guarantee passage to the knockout round.

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