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

Brazilian domestic football – the great untapped market?

BRAZIL is the biggest exporter of footballing talent – the Brazilian can be found plying his trade in all corners of the world and in every continent. The national team, despite its ups and downs, is always considered among the favourites when a World Cup comes around. The media is still hung-up on the spirit of beach-playing ball artists and the culture of joga bonito.

Sadly, the circus element of Brazilian football perished long ago, way before Germany won 7-1 in the World Cup semi-final and delivered a crushing blow to the psyche of the nation that was comparable to the disaster of “Maracanazo” of 1950.

Football is so important to Brazil as to a large degree it used the game to define its identity. David Goldblatt, academic and author of Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer, captured the universal perception of Brazil when he described it as “an exotic tropical nation, based around football.”

Although the days of Pelé and the golden team of 1970 are long gone, Brazil can still conjure-up a very decent national team, but Brazilian club football struggles to compete on the global stage, on and off the pitch. There was a time when teams from Brazil could beat Europe’s best in the FIFA Club World Cup in its various guises, but no longer can they go head-to-head with UEFA Champions League winners.

South America, generally, is way behind Europe, even though there is a level of natural talent that cannot be replicated in the old world. The greatest players have, invariably, come from poverty-stricken backgrounds with football seen as an escape route. While the US and Europe can create well-run, disciplined and financially stable football clubs and extremely fit players, the “animal spirit” found in players who have developed through street football and excessive practice as a deviation from a life of struggle, belongs elsewhere.

Football is a global sport and Europe’s major clubs have broken out of their traditional catchment areas to secure fans in Asia, the Americas and Africa. This has the potential to threaten clubs in countries like Argentina and Brazil. The fans that grew up watching Pelé, Zico and Socrates find it hard to believe that their children and grandchildren are now fans of Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid – this, in one of the cradles of the beautiful game (a term invented by the great Pelé himself).

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