Worth Watching: The Copa Libertadores
By Marc Serber
The Copa Libertadores got off to a rousing start this week with six preliminary matches displaying the passion, drama, and sheer daftness that makes South America’s primary club competition so intriguing.
South America’s version of the UEFA Champions League carries with it the same allure as a European night at the Bernabeau and new viewers will find themselves surprised with the skill on display.
Over the last few years, Neymar’s Santos lit up the 2011 tournament while Universidad de Chile was known as the Barcelona of South America for their fluid 4-3-3 style of futbol. Last year, Boca’s Juan Riquelme (remember him) methodically led Boca Juniors all the way to the final.
While the grand finale usually ends up being an Argentina v. Brazil affair, other countries (especially Chile, Ecuador and Paraguay) often giving the big guns a strong run for their money.
This year is no different as Brazilian clubs Corinthians (the reigning champions), Ronaldinho’s Atletico Mineiro and Brasileiro champions Fluminense are the favorites to book their place for next year’s Club World Cup.
“With the economy so strong and the signings teams have been able to make, Brazilian clubs will no doubt be the favorites again this year,” says Fox Deportes’ Roger Valdivieso.
“Brazilian teams take the Copa Lib more seriously than any other tournament and the money in their game will only make them better. Boca Juniors do have their famous head coach Carlos Bianchi back, but without Riquelme, they don’t have as much of a chance.”
Mexican teams also add to the spice of the competition. While the Azteca clubs reside in CONCACAF and not South America’s CONMEBOL, their inclusion brings much needed sponsorship and revenue to the tournament.
Mexican teams have made it to the final but have yet to win the tournament. Chivas was the most recent side to make it to the last hurdle before losing to Brazil’s Internacional in 2010.
While Mexican clubs bring prestige and money to the Copa Libertadores, Valdiviseo is quick to point out that the North Americans don’t take the tournament as seriously as their southern opponents.
“Make no mistake, the Mexican teams will always give priority to their local tournament. If they have to chose between making a decent run in the local tournament or the Copa Lib, then the emphasis will always be on results in Mexico.”
Another reason for this is that the Mexican Football Association does not make any adjustments to make life easier for teams competing in the Southern Hemisphere.
While FA’s such as Venezuela or Bolivia will often move league games so that their entrants have more time to prepare for continental matches, the FMF offers no such concessions.
The Copa Libertadores is also a great place to watch rising South American stars put themselves in the European shop window.
Before winning seven titles with Lyon, Juninho Pernambucano became famous across South America with one of his trademark free kicks in the semifinal against River Plate as Vasco da Gama went on to claim the crown in 1998.
Carlos Tevez cut his teeth in the tournament before giving both Manchester clubs the runaround.
This year is no different with European scouts keeping their eye on plenty of the tournament’s most promising players. According to PasionLibertadores, Corinthians’ Paulino is already valued at 15.6 million Euros.
Gremio’s Chilean forward Eduardo Vargas scored 11 goals in the 2011 Copa Sudamericana (Europa League equivalent).
Boca Juniors also has a young contingent to keep an eye on with 18-year-old midfielder Leandro Paredes heading that list.
One of the best things about watching the Copa Lib comes years down the road when you watch a South American talent setting Europe alight and yet you’ve already known him for years. You’ve watched that player develop and knew of his precocious talent before any of your friends.
The preliminary stage finishes up this week with all Libertadores matches taking place on Tuesday-Thursday. The competition proper begins on February 6.
Be aware. Once you set your eyes on the Copa Libertadores, there’s no turning back.