Rodrigo Mora: The idol that might not have been

As a kid, Gremio wanted to sign him. In 2006, he starred against Juventus in a youth tournament. The striker retires after winning 11 titles throughout his career, including two CONMEBOL Libertadores

It could have turned out so differently for Rodrigo Mora. In 1987 37 million men were living in Rivera. It's a small city in the north of Uruguay, close to the border of Brazil, and it sometimes invited families who were looking for work in either Spanish or Portuguese. Mora had already impressed the visiting scouts while playing for Nacional de Rivera. Gremio were the first major club to show an interest in the young striker. Mora's mother passed away when he was just 12 and his father, a builder, often asked his son to help him out whenever he had the time. He was on the verge of joining the Brazilian side until Juventud Las Piedras appeared on the scene and he instead signed on the dotted line for them instead. In 2007, at the Parque Artigas stadium, he made his Primera debut but he was already creating a buzz before then.

The day in which the world took noticed of this obvious talent wasn't when he scored his first goal against Boca, in a Superclásico, at El Monumental. It was on the 27th February 2006 at 3PM in Tuscany, Italy. Perhaps Claudio Marchisio (Zenit) and Domenico Criscito (Genoa) could tell the story betetr as they were there too. On that day, in the Via Reggio tournament, with a goal from Sebastián Ribas (Lanús), Mora was unstoppable as Juventud Las Piedras beat Juventus in the final.

He didn't stay at Juventud for long. Defensor Sporting bought him as an investment for the future and sent him to Cerro on loan. When Mora returned, he produced his best football to date. In the 2010/11 season he was incredible: scoring 11 goals in 15 matches. He was the top scorer and won his first title in the Primera, the Clausura 2009 and the Apertura 2010. Although his big claim to fame came before then. In the first leg of the Copa Libertadores, against a Boca Juniors side which had forwards such as Martín Palermo, Nicolás Gaitán and Rodrigo Palacio, Mora made it 2-2 and that was key for his team getting through to the next round.

It was a header that became something of a trademark for a footballer who stood 1.72 metres tall. His technique was perfect: Mora always rose high in the air and aimed his efforts down into the ground so it'd bounce back up beyond the goalkeeper´s reach.

Benfica picked him up after his contract with Defensor expired. He only spent six months with the Portuguese giants, playing three matches and only a handful of minutes. He returned to Uruguay with Peñarol on loan. "Back in Rivera, we are all Peñarol supporters," he said at his presentation. It was what he needed. He returned to action in both the league and the Libertadores. He loved his stay at the club so much that he even got their badge tattooed onto his body.

That was until he found River. Matias Almeyda was in the charge at the time as they returned back to the Primera in 2012. He publicly asked for an experienced forward to lead the line. Daniel Passarella signed Peñarol's key man. He arrived ready to impress. Mora scored six goals, the "u ru guayo" chant could be heard often, was compared with Enzo Francescoli and it was a summer to remember. In the Mar del Plata preseason tournament, where Ramón Díaz and Carlos Bianchi resumed their rivalry, Mora scored both goals as River won 2-0.

The next few seasons were a bit more complicated. Ramón didn't see the striker as his first choice option. The arrival of Juan Manuel Iturbe saw him lose his role as secondary striker. Further forward, as the more traditional frontman, the minutes were being shared between Rogelio Funes Mori and David Trezeguet. For the next tournament Teófilo Gutiérrez joined the club too. In 2013 he ended up playing just 13 matches. In December the club decided to loan him out to Universidad de Chile. Rodolfo D’Onofrio returned as president of the club and, alongside him, so did goalscorer Fernando Cavenaghi. River ended up as Argentine champions. Of all the titles won in this new era at River Plate, this was the only one that Mora missed out on claiming.

Marcelo Gallardo brought him back. In the middle of 2014, the coach asked for Mora to return - and he never went anywhere else. Gallardo pushed him the striker to his limits and once, in match against Banfield, the coach screamed at Mora saying he would take him off if he kept playing as he was. He was in another role, not as far wide as he'd previously been used, and sat just behind the main striker. He won everything: two Libertadores, two Copa Argentinas and a Sudamericana.

His best goal, his most beautiful goal, came on the 14th July 2015 in the semi-final of the CONMEBOL Libertadores. River were already 1-0 up thanks to a goal from Gabriel Mercardo and, with Cavenaghi and Javier Saviola on the bench, Mora cooly chipped the ball over the head of the onrushing Alfredo Aguilar and it nestled into the back of the net. A finish even Lionel Messi himself would've been proud of. In 2014 he had scored a similar goal against Independiente with his left root. He was the top scorer for River in that tournament with four goals: one against Tigres, two against San José - both in the group stages - and his last in the semi-final against Guaraní.

"My fear, before my operation, was that I wouldn't be able to play football again," he said after returning from aseptic necrosis in the top of his femur. "What a beautiful punishment," he said, praying, as he trained to get back out on the pitch. He missed playing football and didn't want to let it go. His last gift came against Boca in the Supercopa. In the first part of the 2018 season he was ahead of Lucas Pratto and Ignacio Scocco. He scored the first goal for River in the CONMEBOL Libertadores 2018, which they later went on to win, against Flamengo.

That same injury ended up forcing him to retire at the age of 31. He announced it with such words that everyone could feel his pain. In modern football to be at a club for seven years is a lot. You become known and learn of every secret. Mora could have left River to sign bumper contracts elsewhere but he decided to stay. He might not have returned when Ramón Díaz decided he wasn't the right person to lead his team. He could have easily signed for Gremio and perhaps never have stepped foot in Argentina.

Mora could have chosen a different path, any different path, but he didn't: he chose to be an idol.

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