Surprise finalists storm the Copa
South America's Copa Libertadores comes to a conclusion that would be difficult to imagine in Europe's Champions League: a clash between two clubs who have reached the final for the first time.
Globalization means concentration -- in soccer terms, it means the accumulation of the world's best players by a handful of top European clubs, which then enjoy a near monopoly on the silverware.
In the periphery of the planet's soccer economy, these same forces are felt in a different way. In South America, even the biggest clubs are continually selling their stars -- indeed frequently the most successful clubs are the ones with the best-administered sales policy.
But with everyone in a continuous state of transition, it's harder for clubs to stay at the top for a prolonged period -- making the outcome of tournaments harder to predict, as old forces fade and new ones rise. And it means that we have a two-legged final between first timers Fluminense of Brazil and Liga de Quito of Ecuador.
There's no doubt the Brazilians go into the final as the favorites. In the previous two rounds, Fluminense eliminated compatriots São Paulo, followed by Argentina's Boca Juniors, the two big guns. The Rio de Janeiro club has won eight of its 12 games in the campaign; LDU has won just four, and has made the final without a victory in its past five matches.
Even so, LDU made the final on merit. The draw was unkind to them. They were placed in what looked like the most difficult group in the field -- an observation which has been proved correct given the fact that its final opponents also came out of the same group.
But LDU sailed through it; its two defeats (including a 1-0 loss at Fluminense) came when it fielded reserve sides after already ensuring its place in the knockout stages. Then its progress was hard fought, squeaking past Estudiantes de La Plata and San Lorenzo of Argentina, followed by América of Mexico. But in all three matchups, the Ecuadorians were the better side.
Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza has them attacking with pace and width, Joffre Guerrón storming down the right, Luís Bolaños cutting in dangerously from the left. Little left-footed Damián Manso makes the play, supported by the lung power of Enrique Vera and the sound common sense of Patricio Urrutia in midfield.
Then there is Franklin Salas, an absurdly talented, if somewhat wayward support striker whose career promised unlimited gold only to run into prolonged injuries. In the second leg of the semifinal, he came in for the suspended Bolaños and gave a performance that showed that he is far from a spent force, and could have a role to play in the final.
And LDU has another powerful weapon. Their away record in this campaign is impressive. They have emerged with honor, for example, from three difficult trips to Argentina. But their best chance of winning is to make the most of the conditions at home in Wednesday's first leg, 9,200 feet above sea level in Ecuador's mountain capital of Quito.
Brazilian clubs despise playing at high altitudes. Indeed, the country's representatives in this year's Libertadores engaged in an unwise and politically naïve campaign to get soccer in such conditions banned. It had no chance of short-term success. It was discriminatory and arbitrary, and flew in the face of the political and economic movement towards South American integration.
Even the gods of soccer seemed displeased. Fluminense's Rio rival Flamengo was the ringleader of the campaign -- but undermined its own argument by producing its best performances at altitude -- in the second half of its 3-0 victory away to Cienciano of Peru, and winning 4-2 away to América of Mexico City. América responded by overturning its lead with an astonishing 3-0 triumph in Rio -- some suggested that Flamengo should try to ban soccer at sea level.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that if Fluminense wants to conquer the continent, it must first climb the Andes.
LDU can base its hopes on the previous meeting of these sides in Quito, on Feb. 20, in what for both of them was the first game of the campaign. LDU applied the most intense pressure. At one point approaching halftime, its share of possession reached 76 percent. There were point-blank saves, shots that hit the post, crosses flashing across the goalmouth. They could easily have been four goals up. How the score line stayed goal-less is a mystery.
But Fluminense can also take heart from that match. In the second half, LDU began to look desperate, and over-committed in attack, leaving itself wildly open to the counter-punch. Indeed, the Brazilians were clearly hard-pressed when veteran LDU keeper José Cevallos burst out of his area and blocked a shot with his arm, and was extremely fortunate only to receive the yellow card.
If Flu can hold LDU early in the first leg on Wednesday, it will aim once more to take advantage of the desperation the hosts may feel as the clock ticks relentlessly towards full time.
Throughout the campaign, Fluminense has been able to come up with goals at vital moments -- and it has the very weapon to tip the balance against its final opponents. Flu is awesomely powerful in the air from set pieces -- free-kicks and corners curled wickedly into the penalty area, especially from the left-footed Thiago Neves, for a battalion of big players to attack with their heads. It has brought the Rio club goal after goal in this year's Libertadores, and it looks like the very move against which the LDU defense and keeper are particularly vulnerable.
If Fluminense can use its head, despite the altitude of Quito it, and not LDU, should become the 22nd club to lift the Copa Libertadores.