Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Copa Libertadores a cradle of talent
This year's major international tournament, the European Championship, was first disputed in 1960 - which makes it a mere youngster in comparison with the South American version, the Copa America, held as far back as 1916.
But in terms of club competitions, rather than national teams, the seniority is reversed. The competition now known as the Champions League, originally the European Cup, first kicked off in 1955. The South American equivalent, the Copa Libertadores, only came to life five years later - and was a conscious attempt to emulate the European competition, so that the champions of football's two traditional continents could fight it out for the world title.
Why the discrepancy? It is not too hard to explain.
Back in 1916 - and again a few decades later - European minds were concentrated on far weightier matters. The First World War was in full swing. In South America, meanwhile, and especially the Southern Cone, football developed rapidly as a result of annual Copa Americas. But it was one thing to gather a collection of international teams in one venue for a month-long tournament. That only entailed one boat ride to Buenos Aires, or Montevideo, or Rio de Janeiro, and so on. Staging a club competition with an entire schedule of home and away fixtures was another thing entirely. It presented huge logistical problems. South America is huge. Travel distances can be immense, and especially back in 1960, transport infra-structure was rudimentary.
Moving around the continent can still be a challenge in the modern day. And, though the introduction of Mexican teams from 1998 onwards may have increased the TV audiences, it has also added still further to the air miles. As the crow flies, Buenos Aires and Mexico City are further apart than London and Mumbai.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that away wins are rarer in the Libertadores than in the Champions League. Road teams in South America face long journeys, different climatic conditions such as altitude, and frequently have to put up with intimidating atmospheres created by the local fans. The group phase of the 53rd version of the Copa Libertadores gets going this week. But the brief qualifying round has already given a flavour of what it to come - of the 12 matches, eight were won by the home side and four were drawn. There were no away triumphs. Crammed in between now and early July (when the second leg of a home-and-away final will be played) the Libertadores is a gruelling competition, a test of skill and character that surely deserves wider international recognition.
True, these days it cannot claim to offer the same sheer quality as the Champions League - a point emphatically made in the final of the World Club Cup in December, when European champions Barcelona hardly had to break sweat to massacre their South American counterparts, Santos of Brazil - but it was not always thus. Pele's greatest displays came in the shirt of Santos. Worldwide he might be best known for his exploits in the World Cups of 1958 and 70. But his real peak came around 1962 and 1963, when he led Santos to twin Libertadores titles. Indeed, by his own reckoning, his finest ever performance came when he ran amok in Lisbon in late '62, taking Benfica apart and confirming his club as world champions.
That was decades before the mass exodus of South American stars to Europe. The talent drain has slowed of late, with Europe's recessionary crisis and a stronger financial situation among Brazil's big clubs, but the movement still continues in the same direction. Santos have managed to retain their contemporary big-name star, Neymar, but before too long he will be playing his football on the other side of the Atlantic. Indeed, part of his strategy for staying longer is in the hope of being better prepared physically and mentally for success with a major European club.
Still, for this year, at least, the Libertadores is lucky enough to feature Neymar's extraordinary talent. Last year, his role in Santos winning the continental title surely marks the moment when he moved from promise to reality. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Libertadores is exactly this - it is a great chance to watch the development of youngsters who may well be on their way to becoming household names all over the world.
The journey from promise to reality is one that Neymar's team-mate, left-footed playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso, has yet to take. Hyped to the heavens a couple of years ago, he has had more than his fair share of injuries and has yet to make the impact his many admirers expect.
The 2012 Libertadores is an important moment in Ganso's career. And there are plenty of other fine youngsters worthy of consideration: centre back Dede and midfielder Romulo of Brazil's Vasco da Gama; attacking midfielder Oscar and centre forward Leandro Damiao of compatriots Internacional; midfielder Hector Canteros of Argentina's Velez Sarsfield; plus Colombian midfielder Carlos Carbonero with Arsenal, rapid wide striker Dorlan Pabon of Colombia's Atletico Nacional and Fidel Martinez of Ecuadorian champions Deportivo Quito.
Then there's the 'little giant', left-footed Kevin Harbottle of Chile's Universidad Catolica or, across Santiago at Universidad de Chile, little Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz. Or another Peruvian in right-sided midfielder Paolo Hurtado at Alainza Lima. Or how about striker Luis Caballero at Paraguayan champions Olimpia, and his 17-year-old namesake Mauro (no relation, though they are both sons of prominent ex-players) at Libertad? Add in all-action midfielder Alexander Chumacero of Bolivian champions The Strongest, and a similar type of player, Diego Rodriguez, of Uruguay's Defensor. I will be looking out for all of these and more, hoping to be fortunate enough to have the privilege of watching a young career blossom.
And then there are the veterans - at their most fascinating when they still have a point to prove. The Libertadores will see no more of Juan Sebastian Veron, but the Argentine schemer saved some of the best form of his long career for his displays in the competition over the last few years with Estudiantes - his first club, and the one his father graced. Veron senior had been the key man in the club's trio of triumphs between 1968 and 1970. His son worked like a man possessed to ensure that the fourth title was won in 2009.
If Veron's motivation was not in question, the same cannot always be said of two of the biggest names in this year's competition, both old-style No. 10s. Juan Roman Riquelme has often cut an enigmatic figure, a giant in Boca's Libertadores wins of 2000, 2001 and 2007, but sulky and lackadaisical at other times. After a two-year absence, Boca are back in this year's Libertadores. Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella has said that, even at 33, Riquelme could have a part to play in the future of the national team. The Libertadores, then, is his big stage.
For Ronaldinho of Flamengo, the stage may be even bigger. It is now some six years since the former FIFA World Player of the Year produced anything like his best form. Last year, back in Brazil, there were occasional flickers of a recovery - enough to win an international recall, but not enough to convince anyone that he will be able to find some kind of sporting redemption by playing a decisive role in the 2014 World Cup. This year's Libertadores, then, is a prolonged examination of his form and motivation and a splendid further reason to pay attention to South America's premier club competition.