If Boca-River can’t raise Copa Libertadores’ profile, perhaps nothing will

Forget Pacquiao versus Mayweather or Miliband versus Cameron. The only matchup that matters in large swathes of South America at the moment is the Copa Libertadores showdown between Argentina’s two biggest clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate. After a glowering, sniping 1-0 River win at the Monumental de Núñez last week, the stage is now set for an epic Round of 16 second leg decider amidst the ticker tape and vertiginous stands of Boca’s La Bombonera in Buenos Aires on Thursday.

It’s a rivalry that brings not just Argentina (where it is estimated over 70 percent of soccer fans support one of the two clubs) but much of South America to a halt, not least because of the importance of Argentinian soccer to the continent. “More than anyone else, the Argentines helped the spread of the game northwards,” wrote the BBC’s South American soccer correspondent, Tim Vickery, in 2012. “In terms of playing styles and fan culture, much of the continent takes its cue from Argentina.”

Away from that clash, this week’s action also provides a tantalizing undercard, from Brazilian giant Corinthians and its estimated 30 million fans attempting to overturn last week’s alarming 2-0 defeat to Guarani of Paraguay, to the all-Brazilian ties: reigning domestic champs Cruzeiro facing three-time Libertadores winners São Paulo, and 2013 Copa winners Atlético Mineiro battling Internacional, who won the trophy in 2006 and 2010.

In theory, this week’s fixtures make up a glorious moveable feast, capable of capturing imaginations and television viewers all over the world. The games could even allow South America to thumb its nose at the Champions League semifinal juggernauts. You might have stolen our best players, but we’re still alive and kicking, the Libertadores might roar while showcasing the best of South American club soccer to the globe.

Except, unfortunately, no one really cares. Or rather they (soccer fans) do care, but only in South America, whereas they care about the Champions League from Tennessee to Tashkent. Whether this deficit is a problem, however, depends very much on your take on the mores of modern soccer, and even the politics of globalization.

Independiente greets the crowd at the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires before beating Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores and going on to compete in the World Club Championship, 5th April 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Getty Images

Independiente greets the crowd at the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires before beating Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores and going on to compete in the World Club Championship, 5th April 1965. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It was not always like this. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Champions League (or more accurately, its predecessor, the European Cup) was a rather more humble knockout competition, often populated by mysterious teams that no one in other countries had ever heard of. All Liverpool had to do to reach the semifinals in 1981, for example, was beat Oulun Palloseura of Finland, Aberdeen and CSKA Sofia – which it managed to do by a total aggregate score of 22-3. Nor was getting in to watch the final as impossible as finding a Wonka golden ticket, like it is today. In 1974 just over 23,000 fans watched Bayern beat Atlético Madrid 4-0 in a replayed final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

Meanwhile, on the pitch, South America was not just racking up the World Cup wins (five out of the eight tournaments between 1958 and 1986 were won by Argentina or Brazil), but the continent’s clubs were teaching their European cousins a few lessons. Santos’ thumping of Eusébio’s Benfica in the 1962 Intercontinental Cup is often described as Pelé’s finest moment in club soccer, after he scored five goals over the two legs. And while British sniffiness about the merits of the Club World Cup and its predecessors is notorious, there can hardly be much doubt of the quality of a Zico-inspired Flamengo’s destruction of Liverpool in 1981. Unlike the yawning chasm between current Champions League holders Real Madrid and reigning Libertadores champs San Lorenzo, there was often little to separate the best of the two continents, until the South American talent drain to Europe kicked in in earnest.

For South America, that best meant the winners of the Libertadores, which, despite some early teething problems, had established itself as the continent’s pre-eminent soccer tournament by the mid-1960s. The name, writes David Goldblatt in his masterly work of global soccer history, The Ball Is Round, was a tribute to “the soldier-presidents who had defeated the Spanish Empire in the early nineteenth century and defined the politics of the now independent continent.” Unfortunately, as Goldblatt puts it, as well as dripping with a sense of glory and pan-Americanism, that name also reflected “the same narrow, fissile, partisan localism of the fractious generals that irretrievably split Bolivar’s Grand Colombia apart.”

Goldblatt describes the nascent Libertadores as facing four key interrelated problems, namely “the enduring poverty of the continental economy, the vast and complex geography of the region and its correspondingly weak transport networks, the immense difference in size and levels of economic and footballing development between the nations of South America; and the enduring suspicions and jealousies that existed between many cultures over issues of race, ethnicity and enduring border conflicts.”

Nonetheless, despite some fearsome squabbling over format and, unsurprisingly, money, the rewards of playing against the biggest and best from across the region meant that the tournament soon established itself among the continent’s top teams, with Santos, Uruguay’s Peñarol, and the Argentinian trio of Estudiantes, Independiente and Racing becoming early forces.

And yet the shadows that lurk behind South American society – from the continent’s chillingly high murder rates to the military juntas that dominated so much of its 20th century history – have been mirrored in the murkier side of the Libertadores. The 1962 final between Santos and Peñarol went to a playoff after the second leg, which lasted over three hours, was abandoned when first the referee, then a linesman, were knocked unconscious by projectiles thrown from the crowd. Estudiantes’ win over Peñarol in 1970 ended with a stand-up fight among the players in the center circle of the pitch. “The South American spectacular, always fissile and combustible throughout the 1960s, was turning nastier,” writes Goldblatt.

While today’s tournament is not as violent as back then, it remains a curious play of light and dark, with games as likely to be played in tumbledown sheds (such as the 8,000-seater Estadio Municipal Rumiñahui in Sangolqui, Ecuador, where Independiente del Valle played its home games in 2014), to gleaming new World Cup arenas such as the Maracanã or Mineirão. Pitches and refereeing are often of dubious quality, and crowds vary from the vast and passionate to the non-existent. While 66,214 paid to watch the São Paulo versus Cruzeiro first leg tie last week, many games are played in front of almost empty stadiums.

In terms of playing quality, the pleasures of observing the latest jewels to drop off the South American production line are balanced against the sometimes disjointed overall quality of teams, often populated by aging veterans or mid-level journeymen unable to make the leap to Europe, and bedeviled by a sporting culture that, in a number of countries, values short-term triumphalism over long-term growth. A fan shown a recording of the gruesome scoreless draw between Universitario Sucre and Cruzeiro (to name just one Libertadores stinker) from back in February, for example, who then watched Barcelona versus Bayern would be unwilling to believe that the former was an example of what is frequently described as “South America’s Champions League”.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 25, 2015: Sao Paulo lines up during a Copa Libertadores match between with Danubio. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)Getty Images

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 25, 2015: Sao Paulo lines up during a Copa Libertadores match between with Danubio. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)

Which is perhaps the Libertadores’ greatest problem. As the premier continental trophy in what has historically been the world’s second (or arguably first, in terms of player development) most important soccer region, the competition is inevitably compared to the televisual extravaganza of sporting globalization over in Europe – a comparison that inevitably makes the Libertadores look very sickly, both commercially and otherwise.

The Bayern versus Barcelona Champions League semifinal second leg, for example, was shown by two of Brazil’s biggest terrestrial broadcasters, as well as on the ESPN cable channel, while last year’s final was aired in more than 200 countries, producing a projected global unique reach of 380 million viewers. In tandem with the European leagues that provide access to it, the Champions League is a global honey pot, attracting the world’s finest players and captivating all but the most stubbornly provincial fans.

The Libertadores, meanwhile, skulks in the shadows of TV schedules outside South America, hidden on deep cable channels in Europe and the United States. Aside from the occasional “South American fans are crazy!” newspaper or internet article, usually based around a particularly vibrant atmosphere or an outbreak of ultra-violence, games like Boca-River and tournaments like the Libertadores barely make a ripple, let alone a splash. Nor is the difference in global attention levels confined solely to the English-speaking world. “The Libertadores hardly registers in China,” says Christopher Atkins, a Chinese football expert based in Guangzhou. “It’s not covered by any of the local TV channels… The Champions League, meanwhile, is shown by national broadcaster CCTV.”

Instead of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez – the Argentine, Brazilian, and Uruguayan stars who’ve led Barcelona to June’s Champions League final — South American fans look forward to watching such lesser lights such as Cruzeiro’s Leandro Damião, once but seemingly no longer a target for some of Europe’s top clubs; Boca’s occasionally talented, if wayward, striker Dani Osvaldo, once of Southampton and (many) other European teams; and even, if they’re very lucky, Atlético Mineiro striker Jô, who recently went 31 games without scoring.

Which leads us, after all that, to the astonishing conclusion that well, guess what? The Copa Libertadores isn’t as good as the Champions League, at least in terms of playing quality, infrastructure and spectacle. And why should it be? The old European Cup wasn’t as good as the Champions League, either. The reason for that is both simple and obvious – because the European Cup and the Libertadores, like the Asian Champions League and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, are regional, continental competitions, even if the latter two are populated by a growing number of players from outside their regions. The Champions League, however, has become a global tournament. Increasingly, the only thing European about it is the addresses of the clubs and most (but not all) of their fans.

A very, very large proportion of Champions League players and the watching global TV audience are from outside Europe – seven out of the eleven goals scored in the first three games of the Champions League semifinals were scored by South American or African players. While Libertadores clubs struggle to pay wages and lurch from one financial crisis to the next, arguably the two wealthiest clubs in the European tournament, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, are backed by fabulous sums by owners from non-Champions League countries.

None of which is a criticism of the Champions League, or a woe-is-me lament for the failings of the Libertadores. The latter certainly could improve as a spectacle by adopting a firmer stance on player indiscipline and fan unruliness, and if many of its teams, notably in potentially wealthy Brazilian soccer, were to take a more long-term, financially responsible approach to club management. In the meantime, however, diminishing the Libertadores for not being as good as the Champions League seems a rather pointless exercise.

Even in a globalized world, where it often seems that the entire world is tuning in to the same game, and where only a small percentage of global fans will ever set foot in the stadium of the team they support, there is hopefully still room for local soccer, be it Montevideo Wanderers versus Palestino in the Libertadores Group Stage, Coleraine versus Ballinamallard United in the Northern Irish Premiership, or Columbus versus Chicago in Major League Soccer. And after all, when you get home from the match, you can always watch the Champions League highlights on the web or on cable, just like the rest of the world.


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