Daring to dream in Sudamericana
The 55th Copa Libertadores now belongs to history, and South America's premier club competition now gives way to its little brother: the second-string trophy, and Europa League equivalent, called the Copa Sudamericana (or Sul-Americana in Portuguese-speaking Brazil). The name is not very imaginative -- perhaps a relic of the haste with which the competition was concocted 12 years ago.
The Libertadores and the Sudamericana may be compared respectively to the Champions and Europa Leagues, but unlike their equivalents on the other side of the Atlantic, the South American trophies are not played at the same time, stretching from qualifying rounds in July to finals in May. Instead, there is a separation. The Libertadores takes place in the first half of the year -- this year's final was delayed until early August by the need to pause for the World Cup. The second half -- from this Tuesday to a two-legged final in December -- belongs to the Sudamericana.
In 2002 the continent was going through difficult economic times, which caused the collapse of the competition that had previously filled the last few months of the year. The Sudamericana was hurriedly invented as a replacement. In the first year there was no participation from Brazilian clubs -- with a vast internal market, the Brazilians are not as financially dependent on international competition as their Spanish-speaking neighbours -- but they made their entrance the following year, and over time the competition has gained credibility.
In some of the early versions, the Buenos Aires heavyweights Boca Juniors and River Plate were invited to take part in a bid to boost the box office. No such sleights of hand are now necessary. The Sudamericana is well established. It is not the Libertadores -- in truth it is nowhere near in terms of prestige or quality -- but it has become more hard fought since it was decided that the winner would qualify automatically for the following year's Libertadores. This is a move which makes such sense that it has now been imitated on the other side of the Atlantic, with the champion of the Europa League now gaining a spot in the next season's Champions League. And, though the Sudamericana is mainly about filling TV slots in the second half of the year, it also gives plenty of clubs around the continent a rare and valuable experience of international competition.
The structure may at first glance seem a little unwieldy, but it is easy enough to explain. There is no group phase -- it is a home-and-away knockout round from start to finish. Four places in the last 16 are reserved for Brazilian clubs; eight of them compete against each other to fill them. There are three spots for Argentina, and six clubs contesting them -- and this year there will be another Argentine representative in the field, reigning champions Lanus, who qualify automatically for the round of 16.
That leaves eight places. Filling them divides the continent in two: on one hand, clubs from four countries to the south (Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay); on the other, from four nations to the north (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela). Each country has four participating clubs, who meet opponents from their half of the draw -- for example, two of the Uruguayan clubs are up against Paraguayan opposition, another faces a team from Bolivia and the other is up against a Chilean rival.
The objective in this early stage of the competition is to reduce travelling costs. After this round, which takes place over the next two weeks, there are no such regional restrictions. As an illustration of how the competition progresses, the winner of the southern tie between Rentistas of Uruguay and Cerro Porteno of Paraguay will take on the victor of the northern dispute between UT Cajamarca of Peru and Deportivo Cali of Colombia. Whoever comes out on top in that one will face Lanus in the next round.
Some teams -- the likes of Deportivo Cali and compatriots Atletico Nacional among them -- have considerable continental tradition and will hope not only to go far in the tournament, but also maybe use it as a practice run for an attempt to win next year's Libertadores (for which Nacional have already qualified). Others are more modest, and are just pleased to be taking part in an international adventure -- clubs such as General Diaz and Deportivo Capiata of Paraguay come to mind here.
But, as compatriots Nacional showed in coming close to winning this year's Libertadores, in contemporary South American football, a small club can go a long way with a little bit of talent and a lot of willpower, a few ideas and plenty of organisation. Everyone, then, has the right to dream as the 2014 version of the Copa Sudamericana gets underway.