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Give me Copa or give me death

Libertadores is the real deal, and an old classic is back

Posted: Tuesday March 20, 2007 12:55PM; Updated: Tuesday March 20, 2007 5:40PM
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Cléber Santana (11), Rodrigo Tiuí and Santos are steamrolling their Libertadores group with three wins in as many games.
Cléber Santana (11), Rodrigo Tiuí and Santos are steamrolling their Libertadores group with three wins in as many games.
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I rarely write about the Copa Libertadores. Actually, in general, we in the mainstream soccer press -- or more correctly put, we in the English-language mainstream soccer press -- tend to ogle the Champions League while barely glancing at the Copa Libertadores.

In fact, most of us pretty much ignore South America unless some rumor surfaces about the next Diego Maradona at Boca Juniors or the next Ronaldinho at Grêmio.

All of which is a shame. Because compared to the bloated pomp and circumstance of the Champions League (why does a football tournament need a hymn?), the Copa Libertadores is a glorious down-and-dirty carnival.

It's like the difference between seeing La Traviata at La Scala and doing shots of jurubeba at a Brazilian beach shack. They both have their merits, but I guarantee you'll remember the Brazilian experience until the day you die.

We Americans have peculiar reasons for becoming fans of particular clubs. We seldom choose teams because our dads were fans. Too many of our fathers can't even understand the offsides rule.

More often we become fans for some vaguely absurd reason, like supporting Newcastle because you like the beer. Feyenoord? Because your dad brought a jersey back once after a business trip to Europe. Bologna? Because you had the best meal of your life at an osteria there.

The reason I support Brazilian giants Santos is entirely capricious, too: Pelé played there. Pure bandwagonism. Plus they have the coolest badge of any club in the world -- a regally fonted "S.F.C." running diagonally across the top of black-and-white stripes. Santos' white strip with the badge in the middle of the chest is the only jersey I own. (I lost the Feyenoord jersey to an irate ex-girlfriend. She knows who she is, and if she's reading this, I want it back!)

But mine was also a false bandwagonism. Because Pelé had retired before I was even born, and in the wake of his departure, Santos had become a swollen, decadent, rest-on-its-laurels type of club. After winning two straight Copa Libertadores trophies in 1962 and '63, the club fell into disrepair.

I've never quite understood how a big, successful club lets itself fall on hard times. Sure, there is overconfidence. There is always some greed and ego. But with all the money that comes in from consistent championships, the bosses have to be either stupid or intentionally destructive to let the golden goose choke to death.

In the 30 years after Pelé's 1973 retirement, Santos won very little hardware: just two Paulista championships and the '98 CONMEBOL Cup, which is akin to a college basketball team's winning the NIT.

In 2002, however, things turned around. The club finally realized that Pelé's ghost couldn't score goals. So it sold off its best players, hired a serious coach in Vanderlei Luxemburgo, and made a concerted effort to develop some young talent. In the past few years, Santos has produced the likes of Real Madrid's Robinho, Werder Bremen's Diego and PSV's Alex.

Just like Manchester United's youngsters vaulted the club to the top of the heap back in early '90s, Santos' kids jolted the old lady to shake off the dust. In '02, Santos won the Brazilian championship and did it again two years later. Then, last year, for the first time since '84, it won the Paulista, besting that dastardly São Paulo.

Now, the Peixe are back. They're leading the São Paulo state championship, just ahead of their biggest rival, São Paulo. In the Copa Libertadores, they're undefeated and atop Group 8. If they win on Thursday at Argentine club Gimnasia y Esgrima -- whom they whupped 3-0 last week -- they will qualify for the second round.

And then? The whole feijoada. That's right. I'm making the prediction right here, right now. My Santos -- the club that was founded on the same day in 1912 that the Titanic sank -- will win this year's Copa Libertadores. They've got the right balance, and finally, the right attitude.

I just hope I haven't just jinxed my team. After all, I predicted Lyon would win the Champions League. And who cares about the Champions League, anyways?