Copa Libertadores heading for an all-Brazil final

THE COPA Libertadores has gradually become more global over the past two years, largely thanks to the 2018 debacle when Boca Juniors and River Plate met in the final in Madrid after a string of highly publicised disruptions in Argentina.

The Buenos Aires duo are back in the semi-finals again, but after disappointing results in the first legs, the odds are stacked against a repeat of the 2018 final. 

Boca’s fans were so frustrated by being held to a draw by Santos, they decided to attack the Brazilian team’s coach. The competition does have a history of violence and disorder, but this year, the semi-finals and final are being behind closed doors. That didn’t stop a brick or two being thrown at the windows of the Santos vehicle.

If Santos and Palmeiras get through, it will be only the fourth time the Libertadores decider has been played between two clubs from the same country and the third all-Brazil final.

Boca and Santos seemed very edgy in the empty Bombonera and neither side could muster up any chances of note, although Boca’s Sebastian Villa struck the woodwork with an effort that would have been ruled-out for offside. 

The previous night, Palmeiras pulled off an unexpected emphatic victory against River, goals coming from Rony, former Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk striker Luiz Adriano and Matias Vina. Palmeiras took full advantage of River’s defensive mistakes and the home side received another blow when Jorge Carrascal was red-carded.  The result was a double blow for River, who were seconds away from retaining the cup in Lima in 2019 but conceded two late goals against Flamengo. They were determined to make-up for that heartbreaking loss.

River, arguably, had the toughest route through to the last four, overcoming Brazilians São Paulo and Athletico Paranaense as well as a quarter-final drubbing of Uruguay’s Nacional.

The Maracana will host the final on January 30 which under normal circumstances would attract a huge crowd in the stadium and across TV networks worldwide. There’s no doubt the Copa Libertadores has the potential to become a significant worldwide event that could enhance the image of South American club football and deliver multiple commercial and sporting opportunities. Until recently, it has been something of an unknown quantity to many fans in Europe. It was good to see the BBC screening the semi-finals.

There is a significant hurdle to overcome, however, caused by making the final a one-off game. Fans from the participating clubs may not have the opportunity to see their team in action due to financial restrictions, hence a lot of people are in favour of retaining the two-legged final format.

The importance of South America’s contribution to world football is unequivocal. Since 2005-06, every UEFA Champions League winning team has had at least one South American in their line-up and that list is impressive: Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez (Barcelona), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), David Luiz (Chelsea), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Diego Milito (Inter), Philippe Coutinho and Dante (Bayern Munich) and Kaká (AC Milan). 

Argentinian and Brazilian players are among the most coveted in world football. According to CIES Football Observatory, there are around 1,300 Brazilians playing in top level football across major football leagues and 800-plus Argentinians. Of this year’s semi-finalists, Santos’s Kaio Jorge, an 18 year-old striker, has caught the attention of Real Madrid and is being tipped to become the “new Neymar”. River Plate have Julián Álvarez (20) who could be heading to Europe before too long.

Football cities in Latin America are among the most fanatical in the world, so the absence of fans makes for a somewhat sterile atmosphere. As the 2018 Libertadores final showed, Buenos Aires is a fermenting hotbed of football. It also highlighted that occasionally, things get out of hand, but a researcher at San Martin University, Diego Murzi, said “in Argentina, there is a football culture in which violence is legitimate, and not just by the ‘barras’ but by everyone who attends.” The popular and frequently televised image of the region’s football fans, nevertheless, is of Samba-dancing, drum-bashing, happy-go-lucky characters urging their team to play beautiful football, notably the Brazilians and their devotion to “jogo bonita”. 

The winners of the Copa Libertadores pocket US$ 12 million and go straight into the FIFA Club World Cup, joining the likes of Bayern Munich, UANL (Mexico), Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea) and Al-Ahly (Egypt). 

If River Plate are to get to Qatar, they will have to produce something monumental to overturn a three-goal deficit against Palmeiras. Dramatic turnarounds in the semi-finals in the competition are rare, although they could draw inspiration from Boca’s 2007 performance when they lost the first leg 1-3 but produced a 3-0 second leg win against Cúcuta Deportivo. Santos versus Boca is still an open tie and the lack of a passionate local crowd in São Paulo may neutralise home advantage. This game will be worth watching.

Photo: PA Images

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