Despite their debts, Brazilian clubs dominate the Copa Libertadores

THE 2021 Copa Libertadores final is an all-Brazilian affair for the second consecutive season, underlining Brazil’s leadership of South American club football. There were three semi-finalists and five quarter-finalists from Brazil. Palmeiras, the holders, will face 2019 winners and reigning Brazilian champions Flamengo in Montevideo on November 27.

It is a clash between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and a heavyweight encounter between two of Brazil’s richest and most ambitious clubs. Both are riding high in Série A this season, although they are unlikely to overcome leaders Atlético Mineiro, who are currently 11 points clear at the top.

Flamengo and Palmeiras will undoubtedly have been involved in the move to create a new league in Brazil owing to dissatisfaction among the clubs about the running of domestic football in South America’s biggest market.

Brazilian football has a desire to change. The clubs are financially challenged and heavily in debt. Earlier this year, Vasco Da Gama were ordered to settle wage debts of € 15 million, but they argued they could not pay immediately as it would prevent the club from function ning. Vasco Da Gama, in 2020, revealed debts of € 132 million of which more than € 50 million was due to the Brazilian tax authorities.

Consultancy firm BDO recently reported that Brazilian top flight clubs have combined debts of US$ 1.85 billion, with Botafogo, who won promotion back to the top division in November 2021, topping the list at US$ 270 million.

A new law was recently created to introduce a new corporate entity model, an anonymous football society, Sociedade Anônima (SAF), which provides new rules around governance and finance. Most Brazilian clubs are run as non-profit association, but the new laws aim to harness and foster the football industry’s potential for growth. This also creates a model more aligned to European football.

Yet Brazilian clubs already have significant advantages over many of their South American rivals. The most valuable clubs in the region are Brazilian and only Argentina’s Boca Juniors and River Plate can compete with, for example, the big clubs from Säo Paulo and Rio. The Brazilian football institutions also have huge fanbases at home and worldwide – Flamengo, for example, have over 40 million fans in Brazil alone.

Brazilian clubs’ domination of the Copa Libertadores is underlined by their record against their Argentinian counterparts over the past three seasons. Argentina had just one representative in the last eight of the competition, River Plate losing, emphatically, to Atlético Mineiro. Brazilian clubs have won 45% of games between the two countries, Argentinian clubs have won only 20%, including just one in 2020-21. 35% have ended in a draw.

There’s another factor to consider and that’s the rise of Major League Soccer (MLS) as a destination for South American players. There are almost 200 South Americans playing in MLS and Argentina accounts for around 25%. Money is an attraction, but players also appreciate the level of patience that can be found among MLS fans. Argentina is still a prime market for the production of talent, witness the broad interest in River Plate’s young striker Julian Alvarez and defender David Martínez.

Doubtless, both Flamengo and Palmeiras have players who can use the Montevideo final as a shop window. Palmeiras beat fellow Brazilians São Paulo and Atlético Mineiro in the quarter finals and semi-finals, but also disposed of teams from Chila, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina on route to the final. They narrowly won their semi-final on away goals, but lost just once in 12 Libertadores games. For the second successive season, 26 year-old Rony has been instrumental in Palmeiras campaign, scoring five goals in the competition. Raphael Veiga, who has netted 17 goals this season and Dudu, who scored the vital away goal in the semi, are also men to watch.

Flamengo still have Gabriel Barbosa in their line-up and the 25 year-old has scored 27 goals this season, including 10 in the Libertadores. Bruno Henrique was the match winner in the semi-final, scoring all four of Flamengo’s goals over the two legs. They had a slightly easier run to the final, beating Ecuador’s Barcelona in the last four and former winners Olimpia of Paraguay in the quarter final. They won nine of their 12 games and were unbeaten on their journey to the final. Flamengo also have former Chelsea and Arsenal defender David Luiz in their squad.

The Libertadores final represents one of the highlights of the South American football calendar, but there are some small clouds hanging over the event. Ticket prices have been raised to unrealistic levels, there are crowd restrictions at the Estadio Centenario and there’s a controversial alcohol ban. Regardless, Montevideo will enjoy being back in the spotlight and the fans that make it to Uruguay will find a way to enjoy the occasion – Brazilian style.

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