Copa Libertadores cultivates an atmosphere the Champions League just can’t match

For many Brazilians Ash Wednesday is the gloomiest date in the calendar – a day of trudging back to work after the hedonistic excesses of carnaval. This year, however, São Paulo and Corinthians fans could hardly wait to get the blocos and the trios elétricos out of the way. What chance, after all, did a mere street party stand against a Majestoso clássico between their teams – especially one in the Copa Libertadores?

This week, though, it is São Paulo supporters whose carnaval hangovers will linger a little longer, after their team flopped to a 2-0 defeat in the raucous bear pit of the Arena Corinthians. In the end Corinthians’ efficient mix of energy and experience, expertly melded together by coach Tite, who led the club to Libertadores and Club World Cup glory in 2012, was too much for the expensively assembled yet limp visitors. The pocket of away fans, who had been transported to the stadium under police escort, had fallen silent long before the end.

As befits a clássico between two local rivals (both of whom are among the favorites to lift the trophy) in South America’s biggest club tournament, the build-up to the match had been surrounded by Super Bowl levels of media attention. Once the hours of frenzied analysis and debate were out of the way, the game was beamed nationwide to the estimated 40 million fans of the two teams by no fewer than three TV channels.

Nor was the enthusiasm for the big kick-off of South America’s biggest club competition any less intense in the continent’s other great soccer cities. Attention in Buenos Aires was divided along the traditional Boca Juniors v River Plate fault lines, with Boca, boosted by the signing of Uruguayan World Cup midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, beating Chile’s Palestino 2-0 (after the club’s team bus was bricked by its own fans on the way to the ground) and River travelling to Bolivia to take on San José.

In Belo Horizonte, fans of 2013 winner Atlético Mineiro sat appalled in front of their TVs, watching Galo lose 2-0 to Colo-Colo at an intimidating Monumental in Santiago, while rivals Cruzeirenses will have to wait until next week to see their team in action. From Medellín, home of an attractive Atlético Nacional side, to La Paz, where The Strongest beat Brazil’s Internacional on Tuesday, the Libertadores consumes the thoughts of South American soccer fans in the way that the Champions League dominates the hopes and dreams of their European equivalents.

And yet in a global context the two competitions could hardly be further apart. “Enjoy the game! You’re citizens of the world!” wrote Brazilian journalist Paulo Vinicius Coelho last year about the Champions League final, and walk down any Brazilian street on a Wednesday afternoon during the tournament and the bars and restaurants will be filled with drinkers and idlers glued to the adventures of Ronaldo or Messi. The Champions League is a global affair, followed avidly from Riyadh to Rio.

Meanwhile the Libertadores is, to quote the great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, an entirely local row. For all that the internet, a proliferation of cable TV channels and an explosion of quality football writing have expanded our soccer horizons, in terms of mainstream appeal in Europe and North America (ex-pat, immigrant and soccer hipster communities aside), the Libertadores is very small fry indeed, buried on “deep cable” channels such as Fox Deportes in the USA. An Irish journalist based in Brazil confidently pitched a story on the Corinthians v São Paulo game to a London broadsheet, only to receive a polite “thanks, but no thanks” in response.

The Libertadores’ reduced global market has an obvious impact on its financial status. In terms of both prize money and TV takings, the differences between the Champions League and the Libertadores are vast. Whereas Real Madrid made $65 million from winning the Champions League in 2013-14, San Lorenzo received $5.35 million from lifting South America’s biggest prize. It is a similar story in terms of TV money – while details of the TV deals of each tournament are hard to come by, Folha de São Paulo reported in 2013 that Brazilian Serie B clubs made more from TV deals than several of the country’s Libertadores representatives had earned from the inter-continental tournament that year.

The financial differences between the two tournaments reflect the widening divide between the game in the two continents. The gap is most vividly illustrated at the Club World Cup where South American clubs, who qualify for the tournament by winning the Libertadores, have in recent years become cannon fodder for the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Worst still, South American representatives are finding it more and more difficult to even qualify for a tilt at the European big boys – in 2013 Atlético Mineiro was eliminated by Raja Casablanca in the semi-finals while last year Libertadores winners San Lorenzo narrowly sneaked past Auckland City, before losing to a Madrid side that hardly needed to break into a sweat.

All of which is a shame, for despite superficial similarities with the Champions League (both are the biggest club tournaments in their respective regions and follow the same group-stage-followed-by-knock-out-rounds structure), the Libertadores is a very different beast indeed to UEFA’s commercial behemoth.

A thousand miles away or more from the invariably gleaming arenas of the Champions League, Libertadores venues – particularly in countries in the continent’s soccer periferia such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela – are often outdated, cramped and occasionally even dangerous, on and off the pitch. The 8,000-seat Estadio Rumiñahui in Sangolquí, Ecuador played host to Independiente del Valle in 2014, while Arsenal de Sarandi’s unlovely Estadio Julio H. Grondona makes no one recall the Emirates. Nor is it only fans who suffer. “It’s by far the worst playing surface I’ve ever seen,” said Fluminense striker Rafael Sobis of the pitch of the Estádio Olímpico da Universidad Central da Venezuela, home to Caracas FC.

Such infrastructural inadequacies can have tragic consequences. In 2013, Corinthians fans brought a naval flare, banned from Brazilian stadiums, into the Estádio Jesús Bermudez in Oruro, Bolivia. The flare would later strike and kill a young Bolivian fan.

The unstable atmosphere at many Libertadores venues is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the violence that can surround the tournament – again, both on and off the pitch. In 1971 the referee sent off no fewer than 19 players following a mass brawl in the Boca Juniors v Sporting Cristal first round tie, while in the stands, chaotic scenes such as fighting among Corinthians fans and the police is not as unusual a sight as it should be.

In 2011, Peñarol players and officials reacted rather badly to losing the final to Santos.

“I’d risk saying it has to do with the hot-blooded Latin temperament,” said respected Brazilian journalist Juca Kfouri. “It’s a cultural tradition. The lack of safety and security, the poor condition of some stadiums, and the terrible pitches all contribute to the violence.”

The sense of volatility may also add to what might be described as the Libertadores’ reputation for somewhat “inconsistent” refereeing standards. It’s not hard to imagine, for example, why a referee would be more disinclined to incur the wrath of home fans at a rickety stadium in La Paz than he would be at a more comfortable, sanitized European venue such as The Etihad. Whether the result of pressure from raucous supporters or more scurrilous goings on, tales of Libertadores refereeing idiosyncrasies are legion – from the five Atlético Mineiro players sent off in a game against Flamengo in 1981 (coincidentally or not, referee Jose Roberto Wright stayed in the same hotel as the Flamengo players before the game) to the 2013 game between the same Atlético and Arsenal de Sarandi in Belo Horizonte, described as a “scandal” by Argentinian sports paper Olé, and which ended with Brazilian police pulling their guns on the visiting players on the pitch.

Geographical factors also distinguish the Libertadores from its better dressed, more sophisticated European cousin. The sheer size of South America (which for the purposes of the tournament includes Mexico) results in enormous away trips – in 2013 Corinthians travelled over 6,000 miles for its away game against Tijuana, around four times further than Manchester City’s trip to CSKA Moscow earlier this season. Then there are the perils of altitude – for the game against San José in Oruro, River Plate players will be given Viagra to counteract the debilitating effects of playing at 3800 meters above sea level.

Not that the Libertadores foibles are entirely negative. While public safety issues are a concern, the elderly status of many stadiums, such as the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, the setting for the first World Cup final in 1930, gives them a sense of history and charm that more modern venues lack, while the advantage of altitude often gives technically limited teams a chance against rivals with far fatter wallets. Vibrant, colorful atmospheres, overexcited players and the occasional dodgy referee mean that for all its failings, the Libertadores is never dull.

All these factors, plus the fact that even the biggest South American clubs are continually losing their best players to Europe (and increasingly, China), give the tournament a refreshingly democratic air that the Champions League lacks. While financial muscle means Brazilian clubs have dominated in recent years, it has been an unconvincing dynasty, with Atlético Mineiro relying on outrageous slices of luck (including no less than three lifesaving last minute goals and/or penalty saves) to win the trophy in 2013.

Last year, no Brazilian side made it past the quarter-finals, a miserable state of affairs given the comparative spending power of the nation’s clubs. Meanwhile the semi-final line-up included teams from Bolivia and Paraguay, as well as little Defensor from Uruguay. And there has been a Paraguayan team in each of the last two finals – rather like Poland or Sweden providing a Champions League finalist for two years in a row.

Viva la diferencia, then, between the Copa Libertadores and the smug old Champions League, and enjoy the unique charms of the tournament – even if South American clubs must wish that those differences, particularly financial, were not quite so gaping.

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