Uruguay: A different Liverpool lead the way

IN URUGUAY, football clubs have a busy schedule and there’s scarcely a moment’s pause for the players after the end of the 15-round Torneo Apertura. The Torneo Intermedio has just got underway after the first stage of the season in which Montevideo’s Liverpool came out on top.

The Negriazules (black & blues) finished four points clear of Nacional and five in front of Deportivo Maldonado and Boston River. In some ways, they were surprise winners for Liverpool do not have the most packed trophy cabinet having previously won a single Clausura in 2020 in their 107-year history. They also won the Intermedio in 2019.

It may sound unusual to see a club in Uruguay named after an English city, but it is a reflection of the seafaring history of Montevideo, which would receive ships at its port from places like Liverpool. The influence of British seaman left its mark in a number of ways and some sporting institutions took on Anglicised names, such as Wanderers, Albion, Uruguay Athletic and Bristol.

Although Uruguay was a progressive football nation and won two World Cups in 1930 and 1950, it has become something of a breeding ground for young talent. In 2021, there were around 300 players from the country playing abroad. The latest Uruguayan star to emerge is Darwin Núñez, who has joined the English Liverpool from Benfica for a huge fee.

Rising from a poverty-stricken start in life in the city of Artigas, Núñez moved from Peñarol to Spain with Almeria when he was 20 and then joined Benfica in 2020. He has scored 48 goals in 85 games and with the fee from Liverpool touching € 100 million, the real winners in the transfer are Benfica, whose prowess at finding talent, developing it and selling it on to bigger clubs has come to the fore once more. Another name to attract European interest is Peñarol’s Agustin Àlvarez who has joined Sassuolo in Italy for a record € 11 million, while Barcelona’s centre back Ronald Araújo had an excellent season under coach Xavi.

However, there is a growing feeling that a golden era for Uruguay is coming to an end. The star names of the past decade, players like Edinson Cavani, Diego Godín and Luis Suárez are now veterans, but the national team qualified for Qatar 2022, although their squad for the finals is not likely to include many players from domestic football, a far cry from 1970 when 16 of the 22 came from the Montevideo giants Peñarol and Nacional.

Peñarol didn’t have a particularly happy Apertura and finished fifth although they did beat old rivals Nacional and inflicted a rare defeat upon Liverpool. As well as losing Àlvarez, they may have had to say farewell to leading scorer Pablo Ceppelini, who is returning to his club, Cruz Azul of Mexico, following a loan spell. Nacional, meanwhile, finished runners-up and were the top scorers in the Apertura with 28 goals in 15 games.

The performance of Uruguayan teams in the Copa Libertadores this year has been very disappointing and there is not a single representative from the Primera División in the last 16. In fact, their record is abysmal over the past decade, just three teams (Nacional, Wanderers and Defensor Sporting) reaching that stage of the competition.

Peñarol last made the last 16 in 2011 when they were runners-up to Santos. Uruguay’s last win was in 1988 when Nacional were champions. Less celebrated countries such as Paraguay and Ecuador have had more last 16 sides than Uruguay. Nacional finished third in their Libertadores group and have the consolation of playing in the Copa Sudamericana, where they will face Club Atlético Unión of Argentina in the last 16.

Montevideo completely dominates Uruguayan football but in 2022, Albion FC made its bow in the top flight for the first time in the professional era. Albion were founded in 1891 by students from the English High School and is the oldest football club in Uruguay. They play in the Carrasco neighbourhood of Montevideo at the Estadio Charrúa. They found it hard going in the Apertura, winning just two games and finishing one off the bottom of the table. They were only two points behind Montevideo City Torque, the club that is part of the City Football Group.

The Intermedio kicked off on June 10, comprising two groups of eight. Liverpool started with a game against Wanderers and suffered two sending offs and lost 1-0. Also in the same group, Peñarol were beaten at home by Torque 2-1. This competition is a prelude to the Clausura, which starts in July and finishes in November. Whether Liverpool can continue their first stage form remains to be seen, winning both the Apertura and Clausura is a big ask and has happened just twice, in 1998 (Nacional) and 2006 (Danubio). If they are anything like their English namesake, Liverpool Fútbol Club will relish the challenge.

A Premier League model beckons for Brazilian football

FOR ALL the talk of samba football and Copacabana beach dudes juggling balls on the sand, Brazilian football is still largely anonymous to the rest of the world. Every four years, the media focuses on the Brazilian national team and expectation invariably exceeds reality – it is now 20 years since they won the World Cup, eight since they were humbled on their own turf by a rampant Germany. That’s international football, but what about Brazil’s domestic game, which despite exporting hundreds of players, is still something of a mystery?

That may be about to change after the passing of a law that will enable Brazilian clubs to behave like corporate bodies rather than non profit-making organisations. This means the free market will start to dominate and will influence club behaviour, as well as create both winners and losers. It will surely be good news for the giants of the Brazilian game but could, if greed gains the upper hand, create bigger imbalances than there are today. In 2020, the revenues of the top five clubs accounted for 56% of overall income, with Flamengo generated 14% on their own. At present, the distribution of TV revenues is certainly sub-optimal, with around a quarter of the total going to two clubs, Flamengo and Palmeiras, between 2017 and 2021. 

But the rebooting of Brazilian football could also lead to greater professionalism and the creation of global franchises in a country whose chief football brand is unequivocally the national side.

It was starting to happen in some ways, mainly through the increased awareness of South America’s Copa Libertadores, which has received greater exposure in Europe in recent years, but not always for the right reasons.

But this new law will open the door for greater investment from abroad, in fact it is already underway with two iconic but financially challenged Brazilian clubs, Botafogo and Vasca da Gama, benefitting from US investors. Meanwhile, another club, Cruzeiro, also with fiscal issues, was bought by World Cup legend Ronaldo. These three clubs had combined debts of around US$ 450 million and, according to EY, the total debt among top flight teams was US$ 1.9 billion (R$ 10.3 billion) in 2020. As well as these takeovers, two clubs were already owned by companies, Red Bull Bragantino, now part of the Red Bull multi-club model, and Cuiba, who are backed by a tyre company. 

In tandem with the new law, Brazilian clubs are threatening to break away and form their own competition. Naturally, money is at the root of this initiative, although critics have called for the Liga do Futebol Brasileiro (Libra) to be more than a way of distributing TV cash. 

Brazilian domestic football has suffered from a poor overseas image and selling games to broadcasters has always been difficult, even though some clubs have huge fanbases. The game has been damaged by poor, short-termist owners, bad playing surfaces, corruption, crowd violence and an overcrowded playing calendar. Brazil stubbornly holds on to its state championships, which allow small clubs to become cannon fodder for the big names. But the biggest South American market is still obsessed with the sport with 80%-plus following the Serie A championship and three quarters of the nation interested in football (source: Brand Finance).

Currently, six club presidents have committed to the new project, from Flamengo, Palmeiras, Corinthians, Sao Paulo, Santos and Red Bull Bragantino. Some believe a breakaway league will release Brazilian football from the chains that have prevented real progress, calling it a moment of liberation. 

TV money will be more democratically distributed, claim the advocates, although there are currently two versions on the table. The first is 40% equally shared, 30% based on performance and 30% engagement, while the second is 50% – 25% – 25%. Essentially, though, Brazilian football’s rebirth does depend on making the pot bigger and successfully marketing Brazil to the rest of the world.

How realistic is the dream of raising Brazil’s competitiveness? The country has always been seen as one of potential, but for various reasons, it has rarely been realised on a consistent basis. From a football perspective, Brazilian clubs remain the dominant force in South America, winning six of the last 10 Copa Libertadores. Six of this year’s last 16 are from Brazil, including heavyweights Palmeiras, Flamengo and Corinthians.

An interesting development is the rise of Flamengo, one of the most popular clubs in Brazil and one that has tried to build a global reputation. Brand Finance’s Football 50 has been dominated by Europe since its inception, but for the first time, a Brazilian club has made its way into the list, albeit at number 49. According to Brand Finance, Flamengo’s brand is far more advanced than Palmeiras, its nearest competitor among Brazilian clubs. 

Can Brazilian clubs ever generate enough money to retain some of the talent that gets sold abroad before it reaches its peak? As one journalist commented, if Brazil was to stop players going to Europe, it would create the best league in the world. That’s a bold claim, but Brazil exports more footballers abroad than any other country, but often fails to leverage the full value. It’s worth noting that Brazilian club revenues in 2020 totalled R$ 5.3 billion (£ 890 million/ US$ 1.1 billion/€ 1 billion).

Until revenues allow the Brazilian game to truly compete with other leagues, it would seem unlikely the trade route will change, although the trend is negative in terms of numbers. Between 2017 and 2022, 1,219 players left Brazil with the chief route being to Portugal (source: CIES Football Observatory). Also, any designs on creating a Club World Cup will be a little hollow while Europe is so dominant.

As the so-called “Football Inc.” initiative becomes more defined, it is not difficult to envisage a wave of investment in Brazilian football in the coming 12 months as there could be considerable upside for clubs with massive fanbases. It could also unleash some of the latest developments in the football industry, such as crypto currencies, data-driven and more strategic transfers and the arrival of more investors with multi-club portfolios. Another factor could be an influx of foreign talent into a league that has a low percentage (< 10%) of expatriates. This could not only be Brazil’s Premier League moment, but handled properly and with patience, it could also change the shape of global club football. 

The good, the bad and then there’s Deyverson – Palmeiras retain the Libertadores

PALMEIRAS of São Paulo became the first South American club to retain the Copa Libertadores since Boca Juniors in 2001 in a somewhat disappointing final in the iconic Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. Palmeiras, affectionately known as Verdão (big green) or Porco (pig), deserved their victory against a shot-shy Flamengo from Rio de Janeiro.

We all admire South American cunning and guile, and Brazilian football’s reputation has been founded down the decades on the positives of the colourful Latino game, but it also has its less savoury, and occasionally, sinister side. Invariably, the reality of Brazil struggles to live up to the legend of 1970 and 1982.

Witness the appalling behaviour of matchwinner Deyverson, who attempted to feign injury when the referee, Juan Belatti, gave him a friendly tap. Rio-born Deyverson, who has played in Portugal and Spain, and briefly in Germany, assumed he had been knocked by a Flamengo player and went tumbling in theatrical style. He should have been carded, yellow at the very least.

Montevideo, the scene of the very first World Cup final in 1930, was swamped with Brazilian fans with hotels in the city fully booked for around a month. The Uruguayan capital was hoping for an economic boost from the influx of visitors after the financial problems of the past couple of years. The attendance for the final was over 55,000.

Given the status of the two sides, it was no surprise that the game was evenly-matched, although Palmeiras certainly enjoyed the best of the first period. They went ahead after five minutes when right back Mayke crossed low for Raphael Veiga to shoot past Diego Alves.

Despite their efforts, and they were stepped-up after the break, Flamengo didn’t equalise until 18 minutes from time. Needless to say, despite being quiet for most of the game, it was Gabriel Barbosa (Gabi), who netted with an angled drive that Palmeiras goalkeeper Weverton should probably have stopped. Gabi scored both of Flamengo’s goals when they won the Copa Libertadores in 2019, beating Argentina’s River Plate in the final. Gabi netted 11 goals in the 2021 Copa Libertadores, making him the top scorer for the second time in three years.

Into extra time, Flamengo defender Andreas Pereira, currently on loan from Manchester United, slipped-up and Deyverson, who had only just come on as substitute, ran through and despite Alves getting a foot to the shot, the ball sailed into the net. Deyverson wiped away his tears as he celebrated. The São Paulo contingent in Montevideo went wild. It was enough for Palmeiras to secure a 2-1 victory.

The final underlined the dominance of Brazilian clubs in South America, which looks set to continue for the time being. A week before the Copa Libertadores, Athletico Paranaense won the Copa Sudamericana in Montevideo in another all-Brazilian final, beating Red Bull Bragantino 1-0. 

Brazil’s advantage in the region is also evident in the transfer market, with some big name players opting to return home, such as former Chelsea and Arsenal defender David Luiz (34) and Hulk (35). Admittedly, they are in their autumn years as players, but they could still command decent salaries in Europe.

Many clubs are crippled by debts, but Brazilian football still has cachet and is capable of attracting sizeable revenues. In 2019, for example, Brazilian clubs generated US$ 1.5 billion. As a comparison, the income of their counterparts in Chile and Argentina barely reached US$ 200 million in 2019. Flamengo, for example, enjoyed revenues of US$ 200 million, while Boca Juniors of Argentina, arguably the country’s biggest club, made around US$ 90 million. In all aspects – TV rights, sponsorship, transfer income, global profile – Brazil’s clubs out-perform their continental rivals.

In Série A, the season edges towards its conclusion with Atlético Mineiro top of the table, 11 points clear of Flamengo and 19 ahead of third-placed Palmeiras. Mineiro can clinch the title with victory against Bahia on December 2. And the team that includes Diego Costa of Chelsea and Atlético Madrid fame and Hulk could win the double as they play Paranaense in the Copa do Brasil final in December.

Meanwhile, Palmeiras and their hordes of supporters are celebrating and will enter the FIFA Club World Cup 2021, which will be played in February 2022 in the United Arab Emirates.