The good, the bad and then there’s Deyverson – Palmeiras retain the Libertadores

PALMEIRAS of São Paulo became the first South American club to retain the Copa Libertadores since Boca Juniors in 2001 in a somewhat disappointing final in the iconic Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. Palmeiras, affectionately known as Verdão (big green) or Porco (pig), deserved their victory against a shot-shy Flamengo from Rio de Janeiro.

We all admire South American cunning and guile, and Brazilian football’s reputation has been founded down the decades on the positives of the colourful Latino game, but it also has its less savoury, and occasionally, sinister side. Invariably, the reality of Brazil struggles to live up to the legend of 1970 and 1982.

Witness the appalling behaviour of matchwinner Deyverson, who attempted to feign injury when the referee, Juan Belatti, gave him a friendly tap. Rio-born Deyverson, who has played in Portugal and Spain, and briefly in Germany, assumed he had been knocked by a Flamengo player and went tumbling in theatrical style. He should have been carded, yellow at the very least.

Montevideo, the scene of the very first World Cup final in 1930, was swamped with Brazilian fans with hotels in the city fully booked for around a month. The Uruguayan capital was hoping for an economic boost from the influx of visitors after the financial problems of the past couple of years. The attendance for the final was over 55,000.

Given the status of the two sides, it was no surprise that the game was evenly-matched, although Palmeiras certainly enjoyed the best of the first period. They went ahead after five minutes when right back Mayke crossed low for Raphael Veiga to shoot past Diego Alves.

Despite their efforts, and they were stepped-up after the break, Flamengo didn’t equalise until 18 minutes from time. Needless to say, despite being quiet for most of the game, it was Gabriel Barbosa (Gabi), who netted with an angled drive that Palmeiras goalkeeper Weverton should probably have stopped. Gabi scored both of Flamengo’s goals when they won the Copa Libertadores in 2019, beating Argentina’s River Plate in the final. Gabi netted 11 goals in the 2021 Copa Libertadores, making him the top scorer for the second time in three years.

Into extra time, Flamengo defender Andreas Pereira, currently on loan from Manchester United, slipped-up and Deyverson, who had only just come on as substitute, ran through and despite Alves getting a foot to the shot, the ball sailed into the net. Deyverson wiped away his tears as he celebrated. The São Paulo contingent in Montevideo went wild. It was enough for Palmeiras to secure a 2-1 victory.

The final underlined the dominance of Brazilian clubs in South America, which looks set to continue for the time being. A week before the Copa Libertadores, Athletico Paranaense won the Copa Sudamericana in Montevideo in another all-Brazilian final, beating Red Bull Bragantino 1-0. 

Brazil’s advantage in the region is also evident in the transfer market, with some big name players opting to return home, such as former Chelsea and Arsenal defender David Luiz (34) and Hulk (35). Admittedly, they are in their autumn years as players, but they could still command decent salaries in Europe.

Many clubs are crippled by debts, but Brazilian football still has cachet and is capable of attracting sizeable revenues. In 2019, for example, Brazilian clubs generated US$ 1.5 billion. As a comparison, the income of their counterparts in Chile and Argentina barely reached US$ 200 million in 2019. Flamengo, for example, enjoyed revenues of US$ 200 million, while Boca Juniors of Argentina, arguably the country’s biggest club, made around US$ 90 million. In all aspects – TV rights, sponsorship, transfer income, global profile – Brazil’s clubs out-perform their continental rivals.

In Série A, the season edges towards its conclusion with Atlético Mineiro top of the table, 11 points clear of Flamengo and 19 ahead of third-placed Palmeiras. Mineiro can clinch the title with victory against Bahia on December 2. And the team that includes Diego Costa of Chelsea and Atlético Madrid fame and Hulk could win the double as they play Paranaense in the Copa do Brasil final in December.

Meanwhile, Palmeiras and their hordes of supporters are celebrating and will enter the FIFA Club World Cup 2021, which will be played in February 2022 in the United Arab Emirates.

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.

Major League Soccer: LAFC favourites to win open season

US MAJOR League Soccer (MLS) gets underway with four clubs being widely tipped as possible champions: Los Angeles FC (LAFC), Columbus Crew, Toronto and Seattle Sounders.

LAFC had a mediocre campaign in 2020, but they went close to winning the CONCACAF Champions League, losing to Mexico’s Tigres UANL in the final. LAFC had an impressive run, though, beating the most successful team in the competition, América, as well as Cruz Azul and Leon, all from Mexico.

That run, along with the club’s much-envied firepower, has made LAFC a highly-fancied side for the 2021 season. Managed by Bob Bradley, LAFC have two of the league’s most outstanding forwards in the Mexican Carlos Vela – considered by many pundits as the best player in MLS – and Diego Rossi of Uruguay.

Vela is well known to European fans as he played 29 Premier League games for Arsenal and made over 200 La Liga appearances with assorted Spanish clubs, notably Real Sociedad. He has been capped 72 times by Mexico.

Vela was injured and absent in the 2020 season, which undoubtedly stymied LAFC’s progress, but Rossi stepped in with 16 goals in 21 appearances. Rossi, who won the MLS Golden Boot, is a player that has already attracted European interest and the 23 year-old will surely find his way to one of the major leagues. 

LAFC have other players who will surely catch the eye in 2021, including South Korean defender Kim Moon-hwan and Corey Baird, who joined from Busan and Real Salt Lake respectively. The Black and Gold kick-off the MLS season with a home game against new members Austin, who count actor Matthew McConaughey among their investors.

Columbus Crew are expected to fiercely defend the MLS title they won last year against Seattle, in fact they may be even stronger this time around. They have Lucas Zelarayán, the MLS Cup Most Valuable Player 2020 as well as Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes. Argentinian-born Zelarayán was a revelation in his first MLS season, also winning the best newcomer award.

Columbus Crew have added to their MLS Cup squad, signing Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kevin Molino and Marlon Hairston. The club will also move into a new stadium later this year, so the positive momentum should continue, although it has to be remembered that MLS Cup winners rarely retain their trophy. The last team to do so was LA Galaxy who were winners in 2011 and 2012.

Toronto have a new coach in Chris Armas but have been somewhat quiet in the player market. They still have Alejandro Pozuelo, who won the MLS Most Valuable Player award in 2020 and is rated one of the best players across the league. They also have Jozy Altidore who was hamstrung by injuries in 2020. 

While Toronto have a strong squad, like all Canadian clubs, they may be handicapped by their exile in the US due to the pandemic. They will be playing most of their home games in Orlando until they are allowed back to Canada.

Toronto have had some stirring battles with Seattle in the past few years and the Sounders are among the fancied sides this year. The club reached their fourth MLS Cup final in five years in 2020, but injuries and departures may have blunted their edge. Much will depend on players like winger Nicolás Lodeiro and Peruvian international striker Raúl Ruidíaz.

A lot of attention will be focused on Inter Miami, who appointed owner David Beckham’s former team-mate Phil Neville as head coach and also signed veterans Gonzalo Higuaín (33), Ryan Shawcross (33) and Blasé Matuidi (34). The Miami team is one of the most expensive ever assembled in MLS and expectations will undoubtedly be very high. Nobody is forecasting that Inter will be a contender, however.

Could 2021 be the year in which the New York clubs, backed by big business and middle eastern money emerge triumphant? The NY Red Bulls were runners-up in 2008, but there’s been nothing since. The City Football Group are surely getting impatient for success?

It has to be acknowledged that MLS has a greater degree of democracy than many European leagues and that it is difficult to predict the ultimate winner. Only three of the current constitution have not played in the play-offs in the past five years: Miami, Austin and Cincinatti. Will that change in 2021?

Photo: ALAMY