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.

Copa Libertadores: Another all-Brazilian affair

FOR THE third successive season, two teams from Brazil will contest the Copa Libertadores final. This time, it is Flamengo against surprise package Athletico Paranaense, who happen to be managed by Luiz Felipe Scolari, a man who knows how to win the competition.

Scolari won in 1995 and 1999 with Grêmio and Palmeiras respectively, and of course, he also won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002. At 73, he’s approaching the end of his marvellous career – he has hinted this may be his last year – and his side go into the final in Ecuador as underdogs although nobody is writing them off.

As ever, the Copa Libertadores provides a very vivid shop window for players looking for that lucrative and career-defining move to Europe. This year, clubs from the top leagues will be watching AP’s 17 year-old Vitor Roque, who has sparkled in the competition, as well as Flamengo’s João Gomes, who has been catching the eye of none other than Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona. In addition to young talent like Roque, AP have been boosted this year by 37 year-old Fernandinho, who joined the club after leaving Manchester City. Flamengo, meanwhile, have a trio of well-known veterans in their squad in David Luiz, Felipe Luis and Arturo Vidal. While some see this exodus of players from Europe as a positive, it has to be remembered they are in the autumn of their careers.

Although AP are not part of the G-12 clubs that heavily influence Brazilian football, they are seen as the strongest from outside that group and they have the largest number of fans in their home city of Curitiba. They won the Copa Sudamericana last year, beating another Brazilian side, Red Bull Bragantino, in the final in Montevideo.  

But AP, from a financial perspective, are a mid-table club in Brazil. In 2021, their total revenues were US$ 50 million, more than 20% lower than in 2020. The club has debts of around US$ 35 million. Flamengo are a considerably bigger club and can draw crowds of 50,000. Their total income was close to US$ 200 million in 2021, but their debts are over US$ 75 million.

AP finished second in their Libertadores group, behind Paraguay’s Libertad, whom they met in the round of 16 and beat. They then overcame Estudiantes (Argentina) and Palmeiras, the champions-elect in Brazil. Most experts expected a repeat of 2021’s final, Flamengo versus Palmeiras, but AP upset the form book.

Flamengo and Palmeiras are increasingly being referred to as the Real Madrid and Barcelona of Brazil and are part of what people are calling “the LaLigaisation of Brazilian football”. They are certainly at the forefront of the nation’s bid to make their domestic game more accessible around the world. From CONMEBOL’s perspective, if they want the Copa Libertadores to become a more global event, these two clubs have a growing profile in other continents. Flamengo have won the Brazilian title twice and finished runners-up twice in the last four years. They are likely to finish third this year after a poor start to the campaign, which effectively cost coach Paulo Sousa his job earlier this year.

But this could turn out to be a memorable season for the Rio de Janeiro-based club; they have already finished runners-up in their state championship, they are in the Copa do Brasil final, the Libertadores final and they are in the top three of the league. They face Corinthians in the second leg of the final on October 19 in the Maracana stadium after drawing 0-0 in the first leg in Säo Paulo. Flamengo will be without Gomes, who is suspended. There is every chance that Flamengo could end 2022 with nothing to show for their considerable efforts.

Flamengo’s Copa Libertadores displays have been impressive and they have won 10 of their 11 ties and drawn once. Moreover, they have scored 32 goals. They beat Velez Sarsfield of Argentina in the semi-finals 6-1 on aggregate and also disposed of Corinthians on the way to the final. Their group was relatively unchallenging and included Sporting Cristal of Peru and another Argentinian side, Talleres.

It would not be the Copa Libertadores without some sort of controversy and this year, the choice of Guayaquil has been questioned. Guayaquil has become a very violent place as gang violence and drug wars have created a relatively unsafe city. The Brazilian news site Globo Esporte suggested that Guayaquil did not have the necessary infrastructure to stage the final, while others have called for CONMEBOL to select an alternative venue. According to the Guardian, Guayaquil is one of the 50 most violent cities in the world based on research by InSight Crime. Against this backdrop, the Estadio Monumental is sure to crackle with tension on October 29.