With Cristiano Ronaldo looming, struggling Mario Yepes faces final test
Is Saturday's Club World Cup final against Real Madrid one step too far in the phenomenal career of San Lorenzo's Mario Yepes? As the legendary 38-year-old Colombian prepares to face Cristiano Ronaldo and company, many San Lorenzo fans think that might be so.
Ever since signing for the club in September following his supreme performances at the World Cup, he has failed to convince and the semifinal clash against Auckland City on Wednesday was his worst game for the club so far.
Critics are merciless. Ole newspaper gave Yepes just four out of 10 for the match -- the lowest mark among defenders -- pointing out that Walter Kannemann, his partner in central defence, had to save him time and time again. The Colombian has never been the fastest player on the pitch but his reading of the game used to be superb, which enabled him to anticipate attacking moves and be in the right place at the right time to halt them.
On this occasion, though, he was quite often caught out of position, clearly at fault when Emiliano Tade assisted the equalising goal for Angel Berlanga, who sensationally took the game into extra time before San Lorenzo prevailed 2-1 to book their place in the final against Madrid.
Aldo Gaibuz, local journalist at Mundo Azulgrana and Ciclon de Boedo, tells ESPN FC: "Unfortunately, Yepes failed to live up to expectations. We hoped that he will replace Santiago Gentiletti, who was sold to Lazio, but it hasn't worked out so far. He is slow and doesn't seem to be committed; losing possession on the edge of the penalty area."
Take a look at San Lorenzo fans' forums and you will read very harsh words about the Colombian, some proposing him to ride a scooter if he wants to catch Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
This is unprecedented -- never before has Yepes been accused of underachievement and a lack of commitment. It has always been the other way round. He has always proved sceptics wrong and played his heart out for his teams.
Relatively unknown when signed by Deportivo Cali in 1997, he was absolutely superb for the club from his home city, won the title and moved on to River Plate at a hefty profit. The Buenos Aires giants adored him and his performances were brilliant in winning two championship titles. Nantes fans immediately fell in love with him following his move to Europe and nicknamed him El Rey. Elsewhere, the Paris Saint-Germain faithful idolised his style during his four-year spell in the capital. While the team dreadfully underachieved in mid table -- even flirting with relegation at times -- Yepes was the ray of light. Super Mario simply couldn't put a foot wrong.
Milan fans were surprised in the extreme when Silvio Berlusconi decided to sign Yepes, then 34, from Chievo in the summer of 2010 but the Colombian won over their hearts in a matter of weeks. Although not a regular, his commitment and leadership skills stood out when help was needed. The Rossoneri won the Serie A title in his first season and his only league goal for the club became legendary. Yepes netted during the famous 4-3 win at Lecce in October 2011, when Milan were trailing 3-0 at the break but came storming back in the second half thanks to a Kevin Prince Boateng hat-trick.
Those who enjoyed chanting his name in the stands were sad to see him leave for Atalanta in the summer of 2013, but Yepes needed more playing time ahead of fulfilling the biggest dream of his life -- representing his country at the World Cup. Colombia failed to qualify in 2002, 2006 and 2010, so he waited patiently for his chance to become the oldest outfield player on the show in 2014.
Los Cafeteros were a joy to watch in Brazil and it was their experienced stalwart who led them from the back. "Mario has the personality to be captain because he is so strong mentally. He is an example to all his team-mates," coach Jose Pekerman said during the tournament.
Colombia reached the quarterfinals, conceding just once in their first four games, with Yepes playing imperiously. He retired from the national team after the unfortunate 2-1 loss to hosts Brazil with 102 caps to his name. That puts him second only to Carlos Valderrama, going down in history as one of the best and most loved players Colombia has ever known.
As Yepes felt it was way too early to hang up his boots for good, a decision was needed on the next destination. There was no shortage of offers following his heroics in Brazil and being a free agent couldn't hurt either. Back in August, his agent claimed that several Premier League clubs had shown an interest in his client, but they were apparently not good enough for the Colombian. Sampdoria coach Sinisa Mihajlovic dearly wanted to see him in his team, but negotiations didn't bear fruit.
A return to Argentina became a possibility as Independiente proposed a good deal, but the player declined it. "I am very grateful for the offer, but after discussions with the family we decided that it is not the right time for it. I have very fond memories of Argentina, but it will be difficult to move my children there," he said.
All along, Millonarios were also in the frame. That could probably be the perfect ending -- to go home where he is an undisputed idol and steadily prepare for the coaching career which seems to suit Yepes, given his intelligence and leadership skills. The Colombian giants started negotiating back in June and by September they looked like the best option but the sides were unable to agree financial terms.
Eventually, the saga ended with Yepes choosing San Lorenzo, which wasn't a natural option given his reasons for turning down Independiente. "I am here to share my experience. I am happy to be part of the team that has just won Copa Libertadores, and this is a major challenge in my career," the Colombian said at his first news conference.
It was crystal clear that the most lucrative challenge was competing at the Club World Cup; the tournament Yepes has never experienced in his life.
Was that a wise decision? Going to Morocco in December meant either failing miserably in the semifinals or meeting Real Madrid in the final. Yepes might have been extremely confident after the World Cup, but stopping Ronaldo and fellow countryman James Rodriguez is a fearsome prospect. His legacy is naturally not on the line, but he must have understood that such an occasion could turn into the most disappointing day of his career. Real can easily rip him into shreds. Did he really need that now, less than a month before his 39th birthday?
San Lorenzo fans have no confidence in him and some are even calling for him to be benched. It's time for Yepes to step up and prove them wrong. He must justify his choice. Taking his performance against semi-professionals from New Zealand into account, he might need a miracle not to be humiliated. But miracles do happen in football.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin