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.

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.