More than 70,000 River Plate fans rocked the Monumental on Sunday for an emotional goodbye to Marcelo 'El Muñeco' Gallardo, their much-loved coach who is stepping down after a glorious run of 14 titles in eight years.
"I never in my life dreamed of living something like this, with a lump in my throat, this is more than I could have dreamed of," said Gallardo as he took the microphone in the centre of the pitch, surrounded by a display of the trophies he has won with the Millionario.
His address came in his last home match as coach before his contract ends in December. It wasn't a fairytale farewell – River slumped to a 2-1 defeat in the penultimate round of the Liga Profesional de Fútbol, Argentina's top flight.
With flags, balloons and a lengthy late-night firework display, the crowd sang, jumped and cried in abundance as they paid tribute to a 46-year-old idol they christened Napoleon: a genius tactician of small stature.
"And give joy, joy to my heart," sang fans in a rocking refrain from the packed stands.
Gallardo also paid tribute to his allies at the club: "Thanks to you, Enzo," he told Uruguayan Enzo Francescoli, the club's sporting manager and another River Plate idol who gave him key support early on in his management career.
Another touching moment came when Colombian midfielder Juan Fernando Quintero, on behalf of the fans, took the microphone and said: "We come to say thank you, for winning, for enjoying and scoring goals, for your ideals, for teaching us to believe."
The legend on a poster hanging from the stands said it all: "Thank you Muñe. You are as eternal as Madrid" – a reference to the epic Copa Libertadores final in December 2018 at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in the Spanish capital, a man in which Gallardo led River to their finest moment, defeating arch-rivals Boca Juniors 3-1.
Gallardo joined River as coach in 2014, declaring at the start of his reign that "I think I was born for this." For now, the identity of his successor is still unknown. Without a doubt, the bar has been set high.
Yet Gallardo's departure canont be disassociated from the current campaign, arguably the team's worst season in eight-and-a-half years. River were knocked out early in the last 16 of the Copa Libertadores and crashed out of the Copa Argentina.
To top it off, they lost the Superclásico twice, both 1-0, to Boca in the league.
Nevertheless, Gallardo departs with seven international title, including the 2015 and 2018 Copa Libertadores, and seven domestic tournament wins.
"I'm sad because he's leaving, but happy for everything he gave us," said Angel Gomez, 52, a shopkeeper, told AFP as he arrived for Sunday night's match.
Another fan, 22-year-old Milagros Banchi, an educational assistant, reflected: "There have been a lot of emotions over the years, but the doors will be open for him to come back."
One of the great successes of Gallardo's time in charge has been the coach's ability to reinvent the side, despite losing big stars each year to club's in leagues with greater finances.
"They sell him players and he's still there. He recycles himself and continues," Spanish coach Pep Guardiola said recently, praising Gallardo's skill.
by Daniel Merolla, AFP