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.