Copa Libertadores Blues

Now that Barcelona is up 3-0 against Atlético Madrid in the 80th minute, I feel like I can finally stop worrying and write a new post (I had a nightmare last night that Barcelona would lose to Atlético.  I woke up terrified.)  Fortunately, at this point in the match I do not see a collapse akin to Arsenal’s today in which the Gunners wasted a four goal lead and allowed Newcastle to earn a draw.  Seriously.

This week the first stage of the Copa Libertadores ended, and in a few weeks the main draw will begin.  The Copa Libertadores, for those who do not know, is the South American equivalent of the Champions League, although unlike every other FIFA conference, the South Americans believe (correctly) that their name for their tournament is way cooler, and so they kept it.

[ed: Barcelona won 3-0 with a Lionel Messi hat trick.  The Blaugrana are provisionally 10 points ahead of Real Madrid, and I can rest easier now.  Barça with their 16th consecutive La Liga victory, broke a La Liga record set 50 years ago by the Real Madrid of DiStefano and Puskas.]

The quality of the Copa Libertadores is very good, definitely the second best of the continental club championships, but it is nowhere near the level of the UEFA Champions League.  There is a very simple reason for that; the best players in South America tend to go to Europe during the height of their careers.  South American clubs, by contrast, are full of future stars, former stars, and never were or will be stars.

Which is not to say the quality is bad or that the tournament is not worth watching.  Quite the opposite.  In fact, in many ways the Copa Libertadores is far more interesting than the Champions League.  For example, one of the joys of the Copa Libertadores is to see new talent emerging.  This year’s competition will feature Neymar and (hopefully) Ganso of Santos, both of whom are destined to be future stars in Europe and the Brazil national team.  Hopefully cruel fate will not interfere.

Another compelling aspect of the Copa Libertadores is that because so many good players leave for Europe each year, the tournament is far less predictable.  In the Champions League, given the massive influx of money in the European game, the champion will almost certainly come from one of only a few teams from Spain, England, Italy, or Germany.  The last time one of the finalists did not come from one of those four countries was back in 2003 when a Mourinho-managed Porto (Portugal) beat Monaco (France).   Before that it was 1996.  Porto’s win was something of a swan song for the little guy; in the ensuing years, the number of clubs capable of competing at the top level–even from the top four nations–has significantly diminished.

No such problem in the Copa Libertadores.  Because the tournament showcases so much talent, players in South America leave, and the South American clubs–who have gotten paid a great deal of money for their departing player–have difficulty maintaining long term dominance, particularly in places like Brazil and Argentina.  The former giants of Argentina, River Plate and Boca Juniors are not even in this year’s edition (and have done terribly in their recent Argentinian league campaigns.)  Neither are Flamengo, São Paulo, or Vasco da Gama, three of Brazil’s most famous club sides.  The tournament is simply more open than the Champions League.

Having said that though, Brazilian sides are usually the overwhelming favorites.  For a long time, Brazilian clubs (well known for their short-sightedness) did not really care much about the Copa Libertadores.  As a result Argentinian sides heavily dominated, particularly Independiente and Boca.  In the early 90’s Brazil woke up to the possibilities of the Copa Libertadores, and the clubs (and fans) started to care.  Since 1992, there have only been three years when at least one of the finalists wasn’t Brazilian.  10 of the last 19 Libertadores titles have been won by Brazilian sides.

One of the Brazilian sides that qualified this year has already produced a poignant story in this competition.  That is Corinthians, São Paulo’s most supported club (and the second most supported after Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo.)  Despite being the second most popular club in Brazil, Corinthians have never won the Copa Libertadores.  The club and its fans desperately want to win, especially since the other major São Paulo clubs (Santos, Palmeiras, and, of course, São Paulo) already won at least one title.  (Ironically, Corinthians won a Club World Championship in 2000, but that is a different story.)  To add to the humiliation, a few years ago Corinthians were even relegated out of the top division.  This year the Corinthians fans expected their humiliation to finally end.  Their club had Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo–not the Cristiano version, the real one from Brazil.  These two men led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title and won all sorts of awards in Europe.  This was their chance to win the Libertadores too, maybe their last.  Especially Ronaldo; his knees demand his retirement.

But it was not to be.  Roberto Carlos sat out of because of injury, and Corinthians fell out of the Libertadores  fell out during the first stage.  They were eliminated by Colombia’s Deportes Tolima.  This was a huge blow to the fans; they are furious–some have rampaged.

Alas, two of the game’s modern legends may end their once illustrious careers in ignominy.  That too is football, and that is one of the reasons why both the Libertadores and the game is so compelling.

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