Brazilian teams still most likely to rule Libertadores
Posted: Wednesday December 26, 2007 10:36AM; Updated: Thursday December 27, 2007 12:50PM
It wasn't just Europe's Champions League and UEFA Cup which had their schedules sorted out last week. The draw also took place for the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League equivalent, which kicks off in late January.
In Europe, the traditional giants have forced their way through the group stage -- the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, Inter and AC Milan, and the Big Four from the English Premier League are all there to fight for the title.
South America is less predictable. The danger can come from unexpected places. Once Caldas, a regional side from Colombia, was the surprise winner in 2004. Two years earlier, tiny Brazilian outfit São Caetano emerged from nowhere to come within a penalty shootout of winning the continent's premier club prize.
The explanation for this discrepancy is obvious, and it was on display at the final of the FIFA Club World Cup earlier this month. Milan and Boca Juniors met once more, four years after their previous showdown in Japan.
The European champions had the same coach and the bulk of the same squad, including the key players, from that '03 match. Argentina's Boca had just two survivors, both of whom had left the club and returned in the interim. Not a single member of the squad had been with Boca throughout the four-year period.
Such a lack of continuity comes from the fact that South American clubs -- even the big ones -- are constantly selling their best players, and the European giants are constantly buying. The South American teams are in a permanent state of flux, and with even the traditional powers losing their star performers, there is always the chance of the small teams springing a shock.
The eve of the Libertadores is an especially worrying time. The action is preceded by the January transfer window. Until midnight on Jan. 31, coaches all across South America will be sweating over the possibility of losing players who may well be fundamental to their plans for conquering the continent.
Throw in the fact that cup competitions, by their very nature, will always produce surprises, and it's clear the Libertadores is a very difficult competition to predict.
However, there is one general trend which seems worth noting. Boca Juniors may be the reigning champions after hammering Grêmio of Brazil in the final last June -- but the long-term is more likely to belong to the Brazilians. The previous two finals were all-Brazilian affairs, and it's likely that clubs from South America's largest country will prove to be the strongest competitors in the Libertadores.
There are three main reasons to believe such a prediction. The first is the change made to the structure of the Brazilian championship in '04. The competition was made much longer, with the playoff system substituted by a more traditional league structure in which all 20 teams face each other home and away.
The domestic calendar of Brazilian soccer is still far from ideal, but there is no doubt that the '04 change represents an advance. And from the point of view of the Libertadores, it's obvious that, under the new system, the clubs that qualify for the international competition tend to be the strongest ones.