Neither debts nor defections can tarnish Libertadores glory

By Tim Vickery,Paraguay
Sunday 29 December 2013 06:04
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Ronaldo has said he will never return to Brazilian football while the current disorganisation prevails. His World Cup understudy would seem to think on the same lines.

Luizão was signed by Gremio Porto Alegre early this year specifically to take part in the Copa Libertadores, South America's version of the Champions' League. After pausing for the World Cup, the competition has now resumed at the semi-final stage. But when Gremio assembled for the flight to Paraguay to face Olimpia Asuncion, there was no sign of Luizão. Worried about picking up an injury that would jeopardise any move to Europe, Luizão jumped ship. It left Gremio without a recognised centre-forward, an absence keenly felt in their 3-2 first-leg defeat.

Luizão's snub is a slight which the Libertadores hardly deserves. Three years ago the competition was expanded to 32 teams. Half are eliminated in the group stage, after which it is home and away knock-out all the way to the final. It has a clear structure, far less convoluted than the European Champions' League. The Libertadores also showcases South America's conveyor belt of talent and has, for example, given valuable international experience to most of Brazil's World Cup squad. But it cannot escape the economic ills which blight the continent.

In the wake of Argentina's financial crisis, this year's Libertadores nearly failed to take place. The clubs had to accept a reduction in prize-money – down by almost a third to a £21m. And the pan-American TV channel which carried the tournament went bust. In stepped Fox Sports, a channel not available in Brazil. So the country which covers half of South America (and provides half of the semi-finalists) can follow Europe's Champions' League, but not its own.

It means that Brazil missed an enthralling first leg between Olimpia and Gremio, two sides who are looking for their third Libertadores win. The other tie provides the guarantee of a new finalist, and speaks volumes about the current state of the South American game.

The continent's famous clubs are massively in debt and must sell to Europe to survive, though much of the money paid in transfer fees ends up in private bank accounts. In effect, they are nursery teams for the European giants. Players constantly appear, shine for a while, and are then sold across the Atlantic. Continuity is impossible to maintain and results inevitably suffer, but the clubs' glorious tradition means that expectations from the terraces and pressure from the media are undiminished.

But neither America, of Mexico, nor São Caetano, of Brazil, are caught up in this process. It is only in the last five years that the Mexicans have been invited to take part in the Libertadores. They were never expected to be serious challengers for the title. But they have done too well for their own good, and the invitation is now being withdrawn.

On a much sounder financial footing than the South Americans, Mexican clubs can keep their top men, and sign quality players and coaches from abroad. As a result the Mexicans have come closer every year to winning the Libertadores.

São Caetano are the outstanding example of a continental trend; the small team with no stars whose team-based approach allows them to come from nowhere and challenge the giants. Only formed in December 1989, the tiny club from the outskirts of São Paulo have enjoyed a remarkable rise – like 1980s Wimbledon, only pleasing on the eye.

In the first leg São Caetano beat America 2-0. They face a daunting return in the Aztec stadium. But if they can hold on and make it to the Libertadores final it will be a Hollywood-style sports story to rival the return of Ronaldo.

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