Brazil sees the light: Libertadores
Brazil is still chasing Argentina's record 21 Copa Libertadores crowns with 13
Copa Libertadores is South America's version of Europe's Champions League
TV coverage, growing prestige has made Copa a priority for isolationist Brazil
The 50th version of South America's premier club competition is getting underway, and there's little doubt that it has been Argentina's show so far. Of the 49 versions of the Copa Libertadores, Uruguayan clubs have won eight (though none since 1988), Brazil has 13 and Argentina 21. Indeed, between '63 and '79, there was always an Argentine club in the final.
But a closer look reveals a different dynamic. Argentina's 21 titles are shared by seven different clubs. Brazil's 13 wins are shared by eight. If that number hints at greater strength in depth in the Brazilian game, the recent history of the competition appears to produce stronger evidence.
Since River Plate won the '96 version, its great Buenos Aires rival Boca Juniors are the only Argentine side to have reached the final -- while 10 different Brazilian clubs have done so. Five of them have won the trophy (Cruzeiro, Vasco da Gama, Palmeiras, São Paulo and Internacional), while the other five (São Caetano, Santos, Atlético Paranaense, Grêmio and Fluminense) have finished second.
There are two possible explanations for this recent Brazilian dominance. One is that this period is the one in which the global marketplace in footballers has gone into overdrive, with Europe snapping up players from all over the world. With a population some 4½ times bigger than Argentina's, it's easier for Brazil to replace the stars who are sold abroad.
The other is that the importance attached to the Libertadores in Brazil has increased enormously. It's only recently that winning the tournament has been the undisputed main priority for Brazilian clubs.
The first club from Brazil to win the trophy was Santos, with Pelé heading the cast, in '62 and '63. It also took part in the next two years, losing in the semifinals, and then decided it had no further interest in the Libertadores. Santos preferred to concentrate on domestic competitions and also travel around the world playing lucrative friendlies.
In hindsight, it looks a crazy decision. At the time, it was perfectly understandable. Brazil is a giant country, practically a continent in its own right, and it's the only Portuguese-speaking nation in a region where everyone else speaks Spanish. A certain cultural isolation is the inevitable consequence. And South America is vast. Distances are much greater than Europe. Even today, traveling around the continent is a time-consuming affair. More than 40 years ago, it was a more difficult and expensive process that gnawed away at the financial rewards of the Libertadores.
In the beginning, the Copa was disputed by one club per country. The Uruguayans, their internal market inevitably limited by a population of just 3 million, lobbied successfully for an expansion, and from '66, each country had two representatives. Brazil, giant and isolated, pulled out in protest. The following year, with Santos declining, there was only one Brazilian team, and none in '69 or '70.
By this time, the competition was picking up a reputation for violence on the field and intimidation from the fans, and a series of controversial incidents led to the annual playoff between the champions of Europe and South America -- the now defunct Intercontinental Cup -- falling into disrepute. This was a match which had attracted the Brazilians -- Pelé rates as the greatest match in his career his performance away to Benfica of Portugal in the '62 version.
In 1980, the Intercontinental Cup was resurrected as a one-off challenge game in Japan, and this captured the Brazilian imagination. Clubs began to talk of their "Project Tokyo" -- their dream of making it to Japan and then showing their stuff against the Europeans. And to get there, they had to win the Libertadores, which gave a considerable boost to the importance of the continental competition in Brazilian eyes. Telê Santana's attractive São Paulo side, champions of South America and the world (beating Barcelona and AC Milan) in '92 and '93, did a great deal to enhance the prestige of the Libertadores in Brazil.
Then, in '94, the era of hyperinflation came to an end. It had been a process that had distorted the entire Brazilian economy. In effect, hyperinflation had turned everything into a bank. Soccer clubs could meet their commitments merely by paying late. There was no incentive to search for a viable structure for the game.
Suddenly, the rules of the real world applied. And in the real world, the structure of Brazilian soccer was clearly insane. Six months of the year were given over to the state championships, where giant clubs, with millions of supporters, played tiny teams, with no supporters at all, in mini-leagues before the top-flight competition began.
It couldn't go on. But the state championships have huge political importance inside the Brazilian game. So instead of being scrapped, they've been cut back. But the days when they were seen as more important than the Libertadores are long gone. Being champion of the continent is much more interesting and lucrative than being champion of the state.
The financial appeal of the Libertadores was much greater now that the cable TV revolution had come to South America. Starting in '98, the audience was further increased by the inclusion of Mexican clubs, and two years later, the competition was expanded to 32 teams. Since then, a brief qualifying round has been added, so now a total of 38 clubs take part.
It took a while for the culture of Brazilian soccer to keep up with the changes. In '97, for example, the first leg of Cruzeiro's final against Peru's Sporting Cristal was not shown nationally on Brazilian TV. Five years later, Brazilian TV audiences saw nothing from the completion until the closing stages and, again, the first leg of São Caetano's final wasn't shown nationally.
Now, though, Brazil enjoys similar blanket coverage of the Libertadores to the rest of the continent. Local TV has caught up with the fact that the top priority for the local clubs is to qualify for the competition. A new expression now dominates the Brazilian Championship -- the "G4." This refers to the group of four clubs that finish the season at the top of the table and who, along with the winners of the Brazilian Cup, take part in the following year's Libertadores. Getting into that G4 is almost as important as winning the domestic title.
It went down to the wire, but it was Palmeiras that grabbed the fourth slot in last year's Brazilian Championship, and won the right to compete in the qualifying round of this year's Libertadores. The São Paulo club celebrated by making some serious investments in its players, and last week its new-look team won its home leg 5-1 against Real Potosí of Bolivia, taking a comfortable lead into Wednesday's second leg at the extreme altitude of their opponents' home.
Palmeiras, then, looks set to qualify for the group stage, and can look forward to the campaign with optimism. Its local rival São Paulo kicks off the competition as perhaps the title favorite. Grêmio and Cruzeiro should be strong, with Brazilian Cup winners Sport of Recife as interesting outsiders.
There is a powerful Brazilian contingent in the '09 Libertadores. Argentina will remain ahead in the all-time number of titles, but it will be no surprise if come July 8, a Brazilian team takes home the hardware.