Copa Libertadores: When a crowd might have made a difference

IN THE end, we were spared 30 minutes of what might have been tedious extra time, thanks to a wonderful goal totally out of character with the rest of the Copa Libertadores final in Rio de Janeiro. Palmeiras scored it, clinching their second Libertadores title after 104 minutes of cagey, fractious and largely uninspiring football.

Finals are invariably an anti-climax and in a near-empty Maracanã, in 33 degrees, Palmeiras and Santos could be forgiven for struggling to raise their game. But they both had enough energy and motivation to roll around on the turf whenever they could and also try a little bullying. Some of the challenges were brutal, devoid of subtlety and often rather cynical.

The match even ended with a bad tempered scuffle and very clear time-wasting by both teams who had decided they wanted extra time as they were running out of time to stage a recovery should they go a goal down. Both were playing a calculated gamble, but for Santos, it backfired and Breno Lopes’s header proved enough to win the cup. Their coach, Cuca, who was adorned in a t-shirt of the Madonna and child, was sent off in added time.

The game proved that South America’s top teams are not a patch on their monied cousins in Europe and that without fans, a stadium – however grand and historic – is just a concrete bowl. Fans make finals, their banners, their cheers, their jeers, their emotion all add to the occasion. Actually, they make it an occasion. But Brazil is one of the worst covid-hit countries around the world, so it was what it was. Although fans were banned, the clubs invited around 5,000 to see the final.

Santos tried to slow the game down from the start, largely to prevent Palmeiras from playing their usual style built around pace. Palmeiras were without the sought-after Gabriel Veron, who failed a fitness test, but their other stars, such as Gabriel Menino and Luiz Adriano lined-up from the start. Santos, who included two players surely bound for Europe in Yeferson Soteldo and Kaio Jorge, seemed sluggish up front. Jorge did catch the eye, notably with a late overhead kick that would have been a memorable goal. Neither Menino or Jorge finished the game, both being subbed just before the end, so if extra time had been necessary, they would not have been involved. 

The winning goal came nine minutes into added time, Rony’s cross to the far post being nodded home by substitute Lopes in true textbook style. Palmeiras’ victory meant they will play in the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar in February where, if all goes to plan, they will meet UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich in the final. On the evidence of this performance, they will find the German side a big challenge. That aside, it has been a good year for Palmeiras, who won the state championship and they also have a Copa Brasil final to look forward to when they will meet Grêmio over two legs. 

Santos, however, have considerable financial issues and will almost certainly lose their best players in order to ease their problems. The impressive Lucas Veríssimo is joining Benfica for around € 6 million. The club has lacked stability over the past year, with political problems and constantly-changing managers (seven in five years). The fact they finished runners-up in the Brazilian league in 2020 and got to the Libertadores final is impressive considering the backdrop of uncertainty.

And so, for the second successive year, the Copa Libertadores ended in dramatic fashion, even if the football didn’t live up to expectations. How a packed Maracanã would have made a difference and maybe livened things up. Perhaps the 2021 competition, which gets underway in a few weeks, will be different.

Photo: PA Images

Copa Libertadores Final: Brazilian derby in an empty Maracanã

TWO old rivals from São Paulo face each other in the 2020 Copa Libertadores final in Rio de Janeiro, yet another big football match played in a supporter-free stadium. Brazil has had 8.8 million cases of covid-19 and over 200,000 deaths.

Palmeiras and Santos meet in the Clássico da Saudade (the derby of nostalgia) with a difference, the first time they’ve met in the competition and only the third all-Brazil Libertadores final. 

The competition, established in 1960, has had a chequered history, but is still among the world’s top footballing events. Yet outside South America, the Libertadores is still relatively under-exposed, despite the fact Latin Americans live all over the world. For example, there are almost 200,000 Latin Americans in the UK, 275,000 Brazilians in Japan and 250,000 Argentinians in Spain. It is good to see broader interest in the competition these past couple of years – the BBC, for example, has been showing games from this season’s competition.

After a period of Argentinian dominance, this season will make it two consecutive Brazilian winners. Flamengo were the champions in 2019, beating River Plate in the final in Lima. The last Brazilian team to lose in a final were Cruzeiro in 2009. 

Palmeiras are considered by some pundits to be the best team in Brazil at the moment, although they are currently in fifth place in Série A versus Santos’ 10th. They have a better recent record in the competition, having reached the last eight in 2019 and semi-finals in 2018. Palmeiras have won the Libertadores once, in 1999, while Santos have lifted the impressive trophy three times, the last occasion being in 2011. 

Palmeiras, who come from the Perdizes district of São Paulo, are said to have 18 million supporters. They are the third most valuable club in Brazil after Flamengo and Corinthians, according to consultancy company Sports Value. Santos are ranked 11th in the same study. Both clubs are part of the Big 12, the group that comprises Brazil’s biggest and most influential football institutions. If ever there was a proposal for a South American super league, both clubs would be among the invited parties.

Gabriel Menino of Palmeiras (left)

Santos, the club that gave the world Pelé and more recently, Neymar, are based in the São Paulo barrios of Vila Belmiro. For a club of their history, Santos’s attendances are surprisingly low, but their home ground only has a capacity of 16,000. In 2019, they averaged less than 10,500 for their league games. In some ways, Santos’s international reputation allowed the club to punch above its weight.  Since the start of the 21stcentury, Santos’s value has dropped, largely due to diminished revenues. From being among the wealthiest clubs, Santos now make around a third of Palmeiras’ income.

In this season’s Copa Libertadores, Palmeiras and Santos strolled through their groups, coming through unbeaten with strong defensive records. Palmeiras conceded just two goals. In the knockout phase, Palmeiras disposed of Ecuador’s Delfin, Libertad of Paraguay and River Plate. Santos, meanwhile, beat LDU Quito of Ecuador, Brazilian stablemates Grêmio and Boca Juniors.

Neither Palmeiras or Santos are likely to win the Brazilian league title in the current season, they are behind leaders Internacional by 11 and 17 points respectively.  Palmeiras have had the upper hand this season in matches between the two clubs, winning 2-1 on their own ground and drawing 2-2 at Vila Belmiro. Both clubs appointed their current managers in late 2020, Palmeiras installing the Portuguese Abel Ferreira and Santos hiring much-travelled Cuca, who has managed nine of Brazil’s top 12 clubs.

With much greater interest in the Copa Libertadores, the final is going to be a shop window for some players to impress an international audience. Brazil, of course, is one of the great football marketplaces and Palmeiras and Santos have a number of players who are looking to move to Europe. 

Kaio Jorge of Santos

Palmeiras have Gabriel Menino and Gabriel Veron, who have both expressed a desire to go to Barcelona. Menino was outstanding against River Plate in the semi-finals and has been compared to Yaya Touré and Casemiro. The 20 year-old central midfielder can also play at right back. Veron has just broken into the Palmeiras first team and is already attracting European interest. Palmeiras have a link with Manchester City after the sale of Gabriel Jesus a couple of years back. His services come with a € 60 million release clause but his market value is more like € 30 million. The 18 year-old winger also has his eye on Barcelona.

Palmeiras also have experience in the form of Luiz Adriano, the 33 year-old wandering striker who has played for Shakhtar Donetsk, AC Milan and Spartak Moscow. He has netted 20 goals this season.

Santos have their own jewel in Kaio Jorge, a 19 year-old striker whose contract runs out at the end of 2021. Juventus, Real Madrid and Chelsea have all been eyeing the youngster who has excelled in the Libertadores this season. He’s another player with a huge release clause in his contract. The club’s leading scorer, however, is 30 year-old Marinho, who joined Santos in 2019 from Grêmio.

For such a clash, the Maracanã would normnally be buzzing, but the Copa Libertadores final still represents the climax of South America’s premier club competition. And much of the world will be watching, so CONMEBOL will be hoping for a cracker – with no fireworks.

Photo: PA Images