Brazil set to dominate Copa again

THE DRAW for the group stage of the Copa Libertadores was made recently and of the 32 remaining teams, 12 are from Argentina and Brazil. In all probability, the winners of the 2023 competition will come from these dozen clubs, but it is hard to see a potential winner from outside an even smaller group of clubs that includes Brazil’s Palmeiras, Flamengo and Corinthians and Argentina’s River Plate and Boca Juniors.

The holders, Flamengo, with their band of 30-somethings, are well placed to retain their crown, and they have a reasonably comfortable group to begin their defence of the trophy. Before they embark on their group games, they have to face their old rivals Fluminense in a two-legged finale to the Campeonato Carioca, the state championship. They have added some new faces to their squad, including Gerson from Olympique Marseille (€ 15 million) and Ayrton Lucas (€ 7 million) from Spartak Moscow. These players are both 26 years old, but they still have David Luiz (36), Filipe Luís (38) and Arturo Vidal (€ 36) in their ranks. 

Flamengo’s biggest hurdle in their group will be Argentina’s Racing, who finished runners-up in their domestic league in 2022. They also face Ecudadorian champions Aucas, a club that used to belong to Royal Dutch Shell, and Chile’s Ñublense, who are known as the “clockwork sausage”.  Flamengo’s record in recent times is impressive, two wins and a runners-up spot in the past four years. They also won the Copa do Brasil in 2022, beating Corinthians. It will be a major shock if they fail to get through.

The most formidable challenge for Flamengo may come from Palmeiras as the competition progresses. Palmeiras have won the Copa Libertadores twice in the past three years and were Brazilian champions in 2022. They were surprisingly beaten in the semi-finals of the Libertadores last season by Athletico Paranaense, depriving the competition of a repeat of the 2021 final.

The rivalry between Flamengo and Palmeiras has created a new dynamic in Brazilian football and some are comparing it to La Liga’s clasico, Real Madrid versus Barcelona. But Brazil has a long way to go to create the sort of profile the Spanish derby enjoys, although they have ambitions that include greater levels of overseas investment. Palmeiras also have a reasonable group, including Ecuador’s Barcelona, Bolivar of Bolivia and Paraguayan club Cerro Porteño.

Flamengo’s traditional Rio de Janeiro rivals, Fluminense, have a tougher section to try and get out of, including 2018 winners, River Plate, The Strongest of Bolivia and Peru’s Sporting Cristal.  River are managed by former Uruguayan striker Enzo Francescoli and coached by Martin Demichelis. The club received a 25% sell-on fee on the sale of Enzo Fernandez from Benfica to Chelsea, so they may be flush with cash at present. They are currently top of the Argentine Primera Divisíon, two points ahead of San Lorenzo. 

Fluminense recently signed Marcelo, the veteran former Real Madrid defender, but the man grabbing the headlines at present is the club’s 35 year-old Argentinian striker Germán Cano, who netted 44 goals in 2022, winning the Bola de Prata, and has already scored 14 in 11 appearances this year.

River’s Buenos Aires enemies, Boca, who were champions in Argentina in 2022, should have a smooth passage through their group, although they have had a rocky start to the 2023 season. They are up against Chilean side Colo-Colo, Venezuela’s Monagas and Deportivo Pereira of Colombia. Boca are currently without a coach after sacking Hugo Ibarra, but the club have their eyes on Gerardo “Tata” Martino or Néstor Pékerman and are keen to install a new man before their Libertadores campaign gets underway.

Corinthians are much fancied by a lot of experts after their 2022 campaign that saw them reach the final of the Copa do Brasil, the quarter finals of the Libertadores and finish fourth in the league. In 2023, they were beaten in the quarter finals of the Campeonato Paulista on penalties by Série B side Itauno, which angered their fans. Football director Roberto de Andrade has since stepped down after fans protested against him and invaded the club’s training centre. It wasn’t the first time the  fans have expressed their dissatisfaction in this way. Corinthians face Independiente del Valle of Ecuador, Argentinos Juniors and Uruguay’s Liverpool in the group phase. They should have enough to get past this trio.

Internacional, the so-called “Clube do Povo”, club of the people, should also be too strong for Nacional of Uruguay, Venezualan side Metropolitano and Colombia’s Independiente Medellin, while both Atlético Mineiro and Athletico Paranaense could emerge from a group that also includes Libertad and Allianza Lima, champions of Paraguay and Peru respectively. The other group, arguably the most open, comprises Paraguay’s Olimpia, Atletico Nacional of Colombia, Melgar from Peru and Patronato of Argentina.

With Argentina winning the World Cup, the spotlight shone on South America once more, but football in the region’s countries has become something of a stepping stone for the most talented players. Of the 104 players representing the four CONMEBOL members in Qatar, only 11 played in their domestic football leagues, while 72 were employed in Europe and 14 played elsewhere in Latin America. Another seven were with US clubs.

The Copa Libertadores deserves greater exposure worldwide, especially the latter stages. There has certainly been more awareness in the past few years, but given its status (the second most important club competition in the world), there is still plenty of upside to be gained. Perhaps FIFA’s idea of a Club World Cup will increase the visibility of South America’s top teams.

Asunción – Paraguay’s soccer central

PARAGUAY is a football-mad country that is overshadowed by some of its more celebrated neighbours; Argentina and Brazil always dominate the narrative in South America and Uruguay earn their place at the table due to their extraordinary record in World Cups and Olympics. As a relatively small nation with a population of just seven million, Paraguay’s chance of competing on a global scale is miniscule.

That doesn’t mean Paraguay cannot produce outstanding players; one of the most exciting players in European football at the moment is Newcastle United’s Miguel Almirón, a native of Asunción, who grew up in the impoverished San Pablo area. Another familiar name is that of Roque Santa Cruz, the 41 year-old striker who has played for Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers, among others.

Living conditions for many people in the city are sub-optimal, with around 20% residing in slum dwellings. Asunción is also a city that is susceptible to flooding, which adds to the hardship. As with all South American countries, football is a distraction in Paraguay and given that the domestic game centres very much on the capital, the fervour is no higher than in Asunción.

Given the number of clubs in the city – nine of the 12-team Primera division – there’s no shortage of high octane local derbies involving Cerro Porteño, Libertad, Olimpia and Nacional. The big one is the Super Clásico between Olimpia and Cerro Porteño, who come from the neighbourhoods of Jara and Barrio Obrero respectively. The intensity of this derby was traditionally built around class differences, Olimpia supposedly being the club of the elite while Cerro had a working class following. Although the lines are blurred these days, the Super Clásico can be violent at times and it is not unusual for a fatality to be linked to the game.

Olimpia, who were founded in 1902, have a remarkable history in the Copa Libertadores. They have won the competition three times – 1979, 1990 and 2002 – and were runners-up in 2013. Given the strength of clubs from Argentina and Brazil, this is an impressive record. Olimpia have won no less than 46 championships in Paraguay. Olimpia might be the most popular club, but they are also one of the most unpopular, a familiar story in many countries. For many folk, you’re either pro Olimpia or you’re not.

Cerro Porteño have won 34 titles and have reached the last four of the Copa Libertadores six times. The club was formed in 1912, taking its name from a battle between Argentinian troops and the Paraguayan Army. They are known as Club del Pueblo, the people’s team, which may also owe something to the political situation at the time of their inauguration.

Nacional, like Cerro Porteño, are from the Obrero area, and were formed in 1904 by students from a public school. Not surprisingly, their nickname is La Academia. Their finest hour was reaching the Copa Libertadores final in 2014, which they lost to Argentina’s San Lorenzo. Libertad, champions 22 times, were also founded by scholars. Club Guaraní are based in Pinozá and are one of the oldest clubs in Paraguay. Interestingly, their yellow and black kit and crest are influenced by none other than Francis Drake, the English seaman and privateer whose contribution to British history is being reassessed. One of the most intriguing club names is Resistencia, who play in Ricardo Brugada, which is also known as La Chacarita, one of the poorest districts of the city.

The 2023 season kicks off at the end of January. The current format for the league is two 22-round tournaments within the season, the Apertura and Clausura. The opening week sees three local derbies: 2022 Apertura winners Libertad against Guarani; Cerro v  Sportivo Ameliano; and Sportivo Trinidense will play Tacuary. Clausura winners Olimpia host Sportivo Luqueño.