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.

Despite their debts, Brazilian clubs dominate the Copa Libertadores

THE 2021 Copa Libertadores final is an all-Brazilian affair for the second consecutive season, underlining Brazil’s leadership of South American club football. There were three semi-finalists and five quarter-finalists from Brazil. Palmeiras, the holders, will face 2019 winners and reigning Brazilian champions Flamengo in Montevideo on November 27.

It is a clash between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and a heavyweight encounter between two of Brazil’s richest and most ambitious clubs. Both are riding high in Série A this season, although they are unlikely to overcome leaders Atlético Mineiro, who are currently 11 points clear at the top.

Flamengo and Palmeiras will undoubtedly have been involved in the move to create a new league in Brazil owing to dissatisfaction among the clubs about the running of domestic football in South America’s biggest market.

Brazilian football has a desire to change. The clubs are financially challenged and heavily in debt. Earlier this year, Vasco Da Gama were ordered to settle wage debts of € 15 million, but they argued they could not pay immediately as it would prevent the club from function ning. Vasco Da Gama, in 2020, revealed debts of € 132 million of which more than € 50 million was due to the Brazilian tax authorities.

Consultancy firm BDO recently reported that Brazilian top flight clubs have combined debts of US$ 1.85 billion, with Botafogo, who won promotion back to the top division in November 2021, topping the list at US$ 270 million.

A new law was recently created to introduce a new corporate entity model, an anonymous football society, Sociedade Anônima (SAF), which provides new rules around governance and finance. Most Brazilian clubs are run as non-profit association, but the new laws aim to harness and foster the football industry’s potential for growth. This also creates a model more aligned to European football.

Yet Brazilian clubs already have significant advantages over many of their South American rivals. The most valuable clubs in the region are Brazilian and only Argentina’s Boca Juniors and River Plate can compete with, for example, the big clubs from Säo Paulo and Rio. The Brazilian football institutions also have huge fanbases at home and worldwide – Flamengo, for example, have over 40 million fans in Brazil alone.

Brazilian clubs’ domination of the Copa Libertadores is underlined by their record against their Argentinian counterparts over the past three seasons. Argentina had just one representative in the last eight of the competition, River Plate losing, emphatically, to Atlético Mineiro. Brazilian clubs have won 45% of games between the two countries, Argentinian clubs have won only 20%, including just one in 2020-21. 35% have ended in a draw.

There’s another factor to consider and that’s the rise of Major League Soccer (MLS) as a destination for South American players. There are almost 200 South Americans playing in MLS and Argentina accounts for around 25%. Money is an attraction, but players also appreciate the level of patience that can be found among MLS fans. Argentina is still a prime market for the production of talent, witness the broad interest in River Plate’s young striker Julian Alvarez and defender David Martínez.

Doubtless, both Flamengo and Palmeiras have players who can use the Montevideo final as a shop window. Palmeiras beat fellow Brazilians São Paulo and Atlético Mineiro in the quarter finals and semi-finals, but also disposed of teams from Chila, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina on route to the final. They narrowly won their semi-final on away goals, but lost just once in 12 Libertadores games. For the second successive season, 26 year-old Rony has been instrumental in Palmeiras campaign, scoring five goals in the competition. Raphael Veiga, who has netted 17 goals this season and Dudu, who scored the vital away goal in the semi, are also men to watch.

Flamengo still have Gabriel Barbosa in their line-up and the 25 year-old has scored 27 goals this season, including 10 in the Libertadores. Bruno Henrique was the match winner in the semi-final, scoring all four of Flamengo’s goals over the two legs. They had a slightly easier run to the final, beating Ecuador’s Barcelona in the last four and former winners Olimpia of Paraguay in the quarter final. They won nine of their 12 games and were unbeaten on their journey to the final. Flamengo also have former Chelsea and Arsenal defender David Luiz in their squad.

The Libertadores final represents one of the highlights of the South American football calendar, but there are some small clouds hanging over the event. Ticket prices have been raised to unrealistic levels, there are crowd restrictions at the Estadio Centenario and there’s a controversial alcohol ban. Regardless, Montevideo will enjoy being back in the spotlight and the fans that make it to Uruguay will find a way to enjoy the occasion – Brazilian style.