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.

Winning the World Cup – invariably constructed in Europe

WHEN ARGENTINA won the controversial World Cup in Qatar, they used no less than 17 players in the final against France. The 17 were drawn from 13 different clubs across five countries; not a single player who featured in the final played for an Argentinian side. This highlights the global nature of modern football, but also the very mobile nature of Argentina’s players, from the great Lionel Messi, who has never played in Argentina as an adult, to the latest star to emerge, Juliàn Álvarez, who moved from River Plate to Manchester City and looks destined for great things.

In their total 26-man squad, only one player was employed by an Argentine club, goalkeeper Franco Armani, the 36 year-old River Plate veteran. Nine of the 26 were over 30 years of age, which doesn’t bode particularly well for the 2022 champions. With most of the manpower Europe-based, it does pose the question, how much of Argentina’s football is a reflection of the South American style. Indeed, does such a thing really exist anymore? Does it get driven out of players who are exported to Europe at a very young age?

Four years earlier, in 2018, France won the World Cup with another nomadic group, although there were far more playing in domestic football than Argentina 2022. But France’s first choice line-up included only two players employed by Ligue 1 clubs. French players are always in demand, as evidenced by the list of teams they turned out for: Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, among others. France used 14 players in their 4-2 victory against Croatia in Moscow, drawn from 12 different clubs. They really were scattered broadly across Europe.

This has not always been the case for World Cup winners, for obvious reasons. In the days when trans-Atlantic travel was a rarity and places like Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro were relatively inaccessible, footballers spent their entire careers in their homeland. Others were paid well enough to keep them at home. Some were simply not allowed to leave.

Argentina were the 10th South American winners of the World Cup and the first from that continent since 2002. They were arguably the most workmanlike of the past champions, despite having Messi in their team. But they were also the most “international” of past winners of the competition from South America.

In 1930, Uruguay’s champions were all playing for Uruguayan clubs and of their 22-man squad, 16 were born in Montevideo and 14 played for the country’s big two, Peñarol and Nacional. Twenty years on, Uruguay’s winning team was also home-based.

Do teams built around a core from one club fare well? For Germany, that seems to have largely been the case. In 1954, West Germany’s miracle-makers in Bern included, in the final, five players from Kaiserslautern, while in 1974, Helmut Schön’s champions had six Bayern Munich players – Maier, Schwarzenbeck, Beckenbauer, Breitner, Hoeneß and Müller. In 2014, Bayern provided no less than seven of the 14 who turned out in the final for Germany against Argentina. Four years earlier, Spain’s World Cup winners included six Barcelona players in their 1-0 win against the Dutch.

Interestingly, when England won the World Cup in 1966, the team in the final came from eight different clubs, including Fulham and Blackpool. West Ham United provided three – Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst. Overall, 15 clubs were called upon, with Manchester United and Liverpool also well represented with three apiece.

Brazil’s squads down the years have illustrated the changing dynamics within football. In 1970, their glorious team came from eight Brazilian clubs, including three players – Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo and Pelé – from Santos. In their finals of 1958 and 1962, Botafogo were the most prominent club side. But by 1994, their team was split between home-based and exported players. The 2022 squad of 26 included only two players playing in Brazil, while 12 were from the Premier League and five from La Liga.

Exporting players is clearly an important part of football business in South America and it is recognised that in order to make Brazilian and Argentinian football more competitive, there has to be a way to keep players longer, which essentially boils down to money. Until that happens, these countries will continue to be nurseries for Europe, which makes European leagues stronger and weakens the top clubs in Argentina, Brazil et al.