Top South American clubs launch Liga Sudamericana to challenge disgraced CONMEBOL

Last week, 15 of South America’s top soccer clubs got together in Montevideo, Uruguay, and decided to create an organization named Liga Sudamericana, or the “South American League” (as in “League of Nations,” not “Premier League”). And even though the organization has no clear leadership yet, it does have a clear purpose: to shift the power balance from CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, to clubs looking to depend less and less on the discredited continental confederation for their earnings.

The South American League clubs include major names recognizable to even casual fans: Peñarol, Nacional, and River Plate from Uruguay; Boca Juniors, River Plate, San Lorenzo, and Racing from Argentina; Colo Colo, Universidad de Chile, and Universidad Católica from Chile; Olimpia and Cerro Porteño from Paraguay; Sporting Cristal and Club Melgar from Peru; and Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito from Ecuador.

The new organization, announced on January 11, the same day as the Ballon d’Or ceremony, got little attention in South America as the press focused on Lionel Messi’s fifth World Player of the Year award. But for those watching, the South American League delineated its objectives pretty clearly:

The South American League wants an increase in prizes for Copa Libertadores. It wants TV money from CONMEBOL tournaments to be given directly to the clubs, seven days before matches. It wants TV rights to be owned by clubs and not by CONMEBOL. It also wants to get rid of the 10% cut CONMEBOL gets from money made by ticket sales for international tournaments, and wants to have a direct representative in the Executive Committee of the South American confederation.

The plan sounds ambitious, and even greedy – prize money for the 2016 Copa Libertadores was increased by about 45 percent from the 2015 edition – but it also seems feasible. Despite being the oldest continental confederation, and a pioneer of continental soccer, recent corruption scandals have damaged CONMEBOL’s image and compromised its bargaining power.

The South American confederation’s previous three presidents have been arrested on corruption charges. Paraguay’s Nicolás Leoz and Uruguay’s Eugenio Figueredo were arrested last May in Zürich in a much-publicized operation led by the United States, while Paraguayan Juan Ángel Napout was arrested last December in a further operation, but then extradited to the United States and released on bail. CONMEBOL’s name is now associated with scandal.

The corruption charges are related to bribery, and include at least $110 million of alleged illicit payments related to hosting Copa América Centenario, a special cup organized to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Copa América and of CONMEBOL. The tournament is set to be hosted in the United States, which is not a CONMEBOL member, but has a larger TV market than any country in the South American zone.

Despite the surrounding circus, Copa América Centenario is poised to take place as scheduled across the U.S. this summer, and the South American League clubs might have been wise in starting to form a wall to protect their interests from an organization that seems to not look out for its own. Yet, this might not be the only reason the league was set up.

This group of top, rogue clubs could be trying to emulate the success of the G-14, a group of 14 (later 18) elite European clubs that existed between 2000 and 2008. The G-14 disbanded – and was transformed into the 220-member European Club Association – after convincing FIFA and UEFA to compensate clubs when one of their players was injured while on national team duty at either the European Championship or the World Cup.

Entrepreneur Francisco 'Paco' Casal arrives to court as a witness in a trial investigating corruption in soccer's South American governing body CONMEBOL, in Montevideo, Uruguay, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Matilde CampodonicoMatilde Campodonico/AP

'Paco' Casal has no idea what you're talking about.

The South American League could also have been set up as a business strategy. Uruguay’s Peñarol organized the meeting which created the league, which has led many to point the finger at Francisco “Paco” Casal as the brains behind the plan.

Casal, a Brazilian-born Uruguayan businessman, is also the self-declared “richest man in Uruguay.” But before he rose to such prominence, he made his name as the agent of some of Uruguay’s top players, including Enzo Francescoli and Nelson Gutiérrez. Now, he is mostly noteworthy in the soccer world for his media company, Tenfield – which he owns with Francescoli and Gutiérrez, and which has the TV rights for the Uruguayan league – and for his company Global Sports, which owns Gol TV. He also invested in Peñarol’s new stadium, to be inaugurated this year, and is known to be close to their president, Jorge Damiami (though Casal once famously slapped Damiami).

Casal approached both Napout and Figueredo during their respective tenures as CONMEBOL president with offers to acquire the TV rights to Copa Libertadores, but was outmaneuvered both times by Argentinian company TyC Sports, which produces most shows for the Latin American Fox Sports. In 2013, Peñarol sued CONMEBOL because the club wanted to sell its Copa Libertadores rights to Global Sports, but the South American confederation mandated them to be sold to TyC for a reportedly smaller amount. Since at least 2014, both Casal and Damiami have been speaking publicly about the need to form a parallel organization to oppose CONMEBOL policies and support clubs’ interests.

Nevertheless, both Casal and Damiami, as well as José Luis Rodríguez, president of the other Uruguayan giant, Nacional, have said that Casal does not have anything to do with the creation of the South American League.

Yet there might be more behind this newly formed alliance. Elections for the new CONMEBOL president are coming up next week, on January 26, and the new league surely has tried to shift the power balance in South American soccer. The only candidates are the president of the Uruguayan Football Federation and CONMEBOL’s interim president Wilmar Valdez, and the president of the Paraguayan Football Association, Alejandro Domínguez. Back in December, Damiami supported his fellow countryman Valdez, but according to Uruguayan magazine Referí, Damiami realized that Domínguez was ahead in the elections, having already convinced the Brazilian, Colombian, and Argentinian federations to vote for him, which when added to his his own vote raised the tally to four out of ten votes in the bag, which ultimately convinced Peñarol’s president to change his tune.

Damiami himself said that he wanted “to play to win” and would support Valdez only if he were to win. So in the interim, with no candidate to listen to his concerns, he launched the campaign that ended with the creation of the South American League. During the inception meeting, Damiami even proposed to postpone CONMEBOL’s presidential elections, although the motion was defeated.

Valdez, acting as interim CONMEBOL president, has said he will sit down and listen the concerns of the South American League’s clubs. But it is not yet clear how much power they might hold. The Brazilian federation banned its clubs – some of the biggest, wealthiest, and best-supported in South America – from attending the meeting, which was a heavy blow.

The South American League might have 15 members from six out of ten CONMEBOL countries (Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Ecuador), but 15 members is still a minority, even at the Copa Libertadores, which consists of 32 teams at the group stage, and even if those 15 teams are some of the most-supported in the region.

But that’s an obstacle the new league doesn’t seem to find insurmountable. It already has three committees which will monitor and audit CONMEBOL’s actions, and negotiate with the continental organism. The next step, however, might only come after CONMEBOL’s elections are decided. Then, maybe we will really find out what kind of power the new South American League wields.