The greatest football tournament on earth? While the Copa Libertadores may lack some of the polish and glamour of its European cousin, the Champions League, South America’s most important club competition is hard to beat in terms of pure excitement and unpredictability.
This week saw Argentina’s top clubs kick off their participation as the Libertadores entered its group stage, throwing up some thrilling encounter and no few surprises to keep fans on edge.
Eduardo Coudet’s in-form Racing Club, returning to the competition after a year in the second-tier Sudamericana during 2016, sent out a warning to felow challengers with a brilliant 4-2 victory over highly rated Brazilian side Cruzeiro on Tuesday. The formula was simple for La Academia: get the ball to superstar Lautaro Martí- nez in the penalty area, and watch him do the damage. The 20-year-old duly marked an unforgettable Libertadores debut with three of his team’s four goals, all of which originated from set-pieces: even a hat trick, however, failed to fully satisfy a player who is widely expected to line up for Argentina next month in friendlies against Italy and Spain, though Jorge Sampaoli has yet to announce any locally based players for his squad.
“I did not really like the game I played,” Martínez said after the final whistle. “Apart from the three goals, I missed two easy chances... for Cruzeiro’s first goal I lost the ball badly, I was robbed. I am pretty annoyed.” With those sky-high expectations and his own natural talent, Martínez looks set to be a huge asset for Racing as they look to build on an excellent start in a Group E that on paper stands out as one of the toughest in the entire Copa.
River Plate too will take great heart from their first outing in this year’s Libertadores. Plagued by awful Primera División form, the Millonario earned a respite from the critics with a 2-2 draw in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracaná Stadium away to heavyweights Flamengo. Marcelo Gallardo’s Uruguayan contingent proved decisive: first Rodrigo Mora hit back instantly after the Brazilian side took the lead to tie at 1-1, before Camilo Mayada’s fantastic long-range strike provided River’s second equaliser just minutes from the end, sealing a crucial point. Estudiantes also earned a draw, albeit in slightly less dramatic fashion as the La Plata side’s visit to Nacional in Montevideo petered out into a dull scoreless stalemate.
There was less good news for reigning Sudamericana champions Independiente, whose lack of precision in front of goal again cost them dear as they were toppled 1-0 by Venezuelan minnows Deportivo Lara. Ariel Holan’s men took a total of 20 shots to the host’s 12 but not one found the net, and with sterner tests in the shape of Colombia’s Millonarios and Corinthians of São Paulo lurking in Group G, the Rojo will be furious at letting slip the chance to start the Copa off on the right foot.
A similarly frustrating Thursday evening lay in wait for Boca Juniors on the road in Peru, as they failed to break down a stout Alianza Lima, despite peppering the home teams goal with efforts. The Xeneise eventually had to settle for a disappointing 0-0 draw. The game proved beyond doubt, however, that even when the goals refuse to appear the Copa still does not fail to entertain.
It was not just on the pitch, however, that the Libertadores was making the headlines. An historic resolution set by CONMEBOL this week threatens to change the face of the famous old tournament, as from 2019 – and for the first time in an almost 60-year history – the Copa will adopt a European-style single final played at a neutral venue, ending the two-legged deciders that have been a constant feature since its inception. As usual, commercial interests weigh heavy. “More than a game, this will be a great sporting, cultural and touristic event that will bring great benefits,” CONMEBOL chief Alejandro Domínguez signalled upon announcing the news.
The benefits for the organising body are easy to see: a single game is much easier to sell from a marketing perspective, and the fewer fans that are able to attend the showpiece, the more tickets can be sold to sponsors, corporate interests and the usual hangers-on that seem to flock to big football matches across the world when someone else is paying the bill.
Just as clear is the implication for the oft-abused regular fans. In a continent where salaries are low, distances huge and air travel prohibitively expensive, the two-legged format served to ensure that every supporter will have at least one chance to see their heroes play a final in the flesh, even if that game ultimately does not decide the winner.
For most followers of Buenos Aires clubs even the shortest of away days, to Asunción, Montevideo or Porto Alegre to give just a few examples, are out of reach except by making exhausting trips overland; a final held in Medellín, or Lima, would well and truly be an event open to a lucky minority. The potential security headache for the host city of policing two adrenaline-filled hinchadas, as well as keeping them away from any local football fanatics eager to throw their weight around, should also give pause for thought after sanctioning this thinly veiled imitation of the Champions League.
There is plenty to improve as it is in the Libertadores without putting in peril its beautifully chaotic essence. The scattergun fixture scheduling – Racing and River will be inactive for more than a month now in the Copa, before playing three games in as many weeks over April and May – is one area in particular that would benefit from the clear, coherent structure employed by its European counterpart since time immemorial.
CONMEBOL, however, continue to look purely at the dollar signs when planning each change to its tournament: forgetting that it is the teams themselves, and even more the passion and colour that spews from their terraces, that really make the Copa one of the world’s most enthralling sporting events.