Santos-Estudiantes in the Copa Libertadores brings to mind what might've been
Estudiantes of Argentina and Santos of Brazil fought out an entertaining clash on Thursday night in the Copa Libertadores. The Argentines pressed for most of the match, but were caught on the break in the first half and conceded the only goal of the match -- a clear case of offside that nonetheless sent the visitors home 1-0 winners.
It was unfortunate the outcome should have been decided by an officiating error. But the real case of misfortune is that it took so long for these two clubs to meet in the Libertadores. Had the game taken place half a century ago, the entire course of world club football might have taken a different direction.
The Libertadores came to life in 1960 as a direct response to the European Cup, now known as the Champions League, which had been inaugurated five years earlier. These were the two continents which, at that time, had a near monopoly on top-level football. The idea was, now that both had a champion, the two would meet to define a world club crown.
In the early days the action, played home and away, was electric. This new Intercontinental Cup was taken so seriously, and played with such intensity, that it was the stage for the best-ever performance by the man often seen as the greatest to have played the game. Wearing the white shirt of Santos, Pele tore Benfica to shreds in Lisbon in 1962.
Santos won the Libertadores just too late to face the great Real Madrid side with Alfredo Di Stefano pulling the strings. This is a shame, but even so, the idea of Santos against Europe's best was still a mouthwatering prospect. Because Santos were more than a one-man team -- as they proved in 1963 when they beat Milan to retain their world title even though Pele was injured. Pele was clearly on another level, but he had a magnificent supporting cast. The problem was that they all had to be paid and the Libertadores did not provide the resources to do it.
Even today, traveling around South America is expensive and time consuming. In the 1960s it was even more difficult. Distances are vast. Infrastructure is deficient. And these, of course, were days before football was bankrolled by money from television. The Libertadores did not pay and Santos could not afford to take part. They came up with a more economically rational way of paying their stars: making their way across the continent and around the world playing a succession of friendlies, packing in the fans and collecting their share of the gate. That meant saying goodbye to the Libertadores. Santos stopped taking part -- indeed, there were a couple of years in the late '60s when the competition had no Brazilian representatives, in protest of the increase from one to two clubs per nation.
This, then, opened up space for Argentine domination. But this was no longer the romantic, free-flowing football the country produced in the 1940s, the era from which Di Stefano was the last and greatest product. Argentine football had spent much of the 1950s in isolation and had fallen off the pace. A humiliating 6-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia in the 1958 World Cup was a defining moment -- and it helped produce the Estudiantes side of the second half of the 1960s.
There were things to admire in Estudiantes. From La Plata, an hour outside the capital, they had the guts to defy the Buenos Aires giants. There was a lot of hard work in their model, plenty of attention to detail, making, for example, intelligent use of set pieces.
But there was little romantic spirit about them. They took things to the limit, seeking to provoke their opponents as much as possible in a joyless quest for victories. Incredibly, this small-town team won three consecutive Libertadores titles, with methods that became increasingly mean-spirited.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the balance of power shifted from the south of Europe to the north. After Celtic of Scotland became the first northern European winners of the trophy in 1967, the south, with the exception of 1969, would have to wait until the mid-'80s to restore its domination.
And when it came to the club world trophy, the styles simply did not mix. The rugged northern European approach and the gamesmanship mixed with excesses of the Estudiantes school did not produce a good spectacle. Tired of the hassle, weary of dodging objects thrown from the stands and depressed by the whole spirit of the occasion, the Europeans lost interest in facing the South American champions. In the 1970s the club world clash often featured the European runners-up, or was not played at all. From 1980 the teams met in a one-off final in Japan, but the Europeans, especially those from the north, treated it like a friendly (as they have the Club World Cup that FIFA introduced more recently).
It is worth thinking about how things might have developed had Santos opted to stay in the Libertadores in the late 1960s. Let us imagine that Pele & Co. would have been good enough to see off the new challenge from the likes of Estudiantes. There is every chance that the annual meeting of European and South American champions might have developed into one of the highlights of the club calendar -- and that more integration between the continents might have held back the huge imbalance that exists today, where South American club football is an export industry, resigned to losing its stars to Europe at an ever-earlier age.
There is much to dwell on, then, in terms of what might have been. But at least today's Santos have the consolation of coming back from their first meeting with Estudiantes with three extra points in their suitcase.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.