Brazilian football exposed by Copa Libertadores failures
Quite rightly, the Copa Libertadores headlines will all go the fact that Boca Juniors and River Plate are to meet in the final. Not only is it South America's biggest derby and one of the world game's great clashes, this will be the first time the great rivals have clashed in a match-up of this magnitude. It is a wonderful story, one which deserves full attention.
But there is time to look ahead to the final and, in the wake of the semifinals, there is another side to the story: Argentina's success is Brazil's failure.
In the last five years, there has only been one Brazilian finalist; considering the financial advantage that teams from the home of the five-time World Cup winners enjoy over the rest of the continent, that extraordinary statistic is barely credible.
True, a new TV deal has benefited the Argentines this year, and allowed Boca and River to assemble deep squads. But the country's currency has subsequently collapsed, and with a number of contracts signed in dollar, it is not clear that this will be sustainable.
The relative advantage of Brazil should be clear from a glance at the country's two semifinalists. Gremio and Palmeiras have smart new stadiums, splendid modern arenas that were not part of the 2014 World Cup, yet neither will stage a match in the two-legged final.
At this level the lines between success and failure can be very fine. Gremio seemed to have a foot and a half in the final, until conceding two left goals in a chaotic, controversial climax to their second leg against River Plate.
It would be harsh to be too critical. They are the reigning champions and no one has managed successfully to defend the title since the turn of the century.
Over the last two years under Renato Portaluppi, Gremio have played some wonderful football. Their squad is not the deepest, and they were hit by key absences against River. Playmaker Luan, chosen as the best player in South America last year, missed both legs through injury. Waspish striker Everton also carried a knock and did not make an appearance until the second half of the second leg, which commanding centre-back Walter Kannemann was forced to miss out through suspension.
Even so, in both games -- especially in the first half of their home game -- Gremio were not sufficiently Gremio. Their current side is a passing one, but they never had to chase the game until stoppage time of the second leg. Until that point, aggregate scores were either level or Gremio had an advantage. Perhaps they sat too much on the ball and the decisive penalty they conceded right at the end teaches an
Palmeiras should have similar lamentations, but fewer excuses. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has a deep squad. During this competition, he has derived benefit from his traditional idea of deep defence and counter-attack. It brought them lots of away wins; Palmeiras had a 100 percent record on the road, until last week's visit to Boca, when they paid the price for their passivity, and were punished with two late goals.
They went a further goal behind in the first half in Sao Paulo. But for a few minutes after the break, there appeared to be a genuine chance of a remarkable comeback. Moving the ball, quicker, keeping their calm better, they began to get in behind the Boca defence. They quickly scored two goals and came close to a third. The hub of their passing movements was Lucas Lima, who a little more than two years ago was wearing Brazil's No. 10 shirt.
He had been left on the bench in Buenos Aires, a decision which seems hard to justify. That exclusion symbolised a desire not to play, to be restricted to counter attacks rather than controlling possession and elaborating from the centre of the field.
This has become typical of Brazilian football. 1970 great Tostao frequently rails against the tendency to divide the midfield into purely destructive and mainly constructive players, as a consequence sacrificing fluency. It perhaps speaks volumes that before the second leg, the Palmeiras fans formed a huge mosaic, on which was written "fight for us."
The choice of verb is striking and it is worth remembering that the only recent Brazilian finalist is Gremio, whose passing style is not typical. Over the last couple of decades, with constant selling of players having a negative effect on the quality of the spectacle, more stress has been placed on drive, on will to win.
Perhaps if there was more emphasis on playing, and less on fighting, then Brazil's recent record would be better.