Union-Independiente clash a study in Copa Sudamericana contrasts
Second string cup competitions are an easy target. It is a comfortable position, for example, to sneer at the Thursday night football of the Europa League -- and if that applies to a tournament containing the likes of Benfica and Napoli, Arsenal and Chelsea, it is all the more true on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Copa Libertadores came to life in 1960 as South America's response to the creation in Europe of the competition now known as the Champions League. The Libertadores has history and prestige -- which it retains despite the extensive effects of globalisation on the quality of the continent's club game.
The Copa Sudamericana, the second strong tournament, lacks the same history and prestige. It is a twenty-first century creation, aimed at widening opportunities for clubs to take part in international competition. It runs into obvious problems. South America has only ten footballing nations. The big two, Argentina and Brazil, supply a (perhaps excessive) total of 15 clubs to the Libertadores.
There is little left for the Sudamericana, especially in the long first round, a home and away knock out process that lasts from the start of February to early May. The momentum picks up in the second half of the year, aided by the inclusion of a handful of teams who have been eliminated from the Libertadores. But the early stage can try the patience of the fans. The development is slow and many of the teams lack both quality and prestige.
Even so, it would be both cruel and unwise to dismiss the Copa Sudamericana. Those who seek hard enough will find reasons to be rewarded. One such was the tie, completed this week between two contrasting teams at opposite ends of the continent. Union Santa Fe of Argentina celebrated their 112th birthday last Monday. Identified with the elite of one of the country's most important cities, in their long history Union have found it hard to become genuinely national players.
Argentina and its football is very centralised around Buenos Aires. Union have spent decades bouncing around the bottom half of the Argentine first division. Qualification for the 2019 Copa Sudamericana brought the club its first experience of continental competition - and the fans were determined to enjoy it.
There was a magnificent atmosphere in their stadium last month when they played the first leg at home to Ecuador's Independiente del Valle. All the drumming and singing so characteristic of Argentine football was on show. And it was the sizeable band of travelling Union fans who provided most of the atmosphere in Quito for Wednesday's return game.
Union supporters had clearly been saving up for some time to watch their team play abroad in competitive action. They made the journey in astonishing numbers, and kept the rhythm of the party going during driving rain in the Quito night. Fans of Union probably outnumbered those of the home side - but Independiente del Valle are hardly a conventional football club. They are from the outskirts of Quito, the Ecuadorian capital -- and their ramshackle stadium is deemed too small for international occasions -- hence the switch to the Atahualpa, the traditional home of the Ecuadorian national team, in the middle of town. The Atahualpa is way too big for the club's tiny fan base. But attracting supporters is not the club's priority.
Founded in 1958, in the last few years Independiente have been taken over by a business minded leadership with the explicit aim of producing players to sell. The project has run remarkably well. Jefferson Montero, currently of West Bromwich Albion, is probably the club's best known product -- though Valladolid have high hopes of their recent signing, burly centre-forward Stiven Plaza. But there has been a conveyor belt of talent. Three years ago the club even reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, eliminating River Plate and Boca Juniors along the way.
True to the model, they then sold almost the entire team. It is astonishing that they can continually do this without results suffering too much. They are, for example, the current leaders of the Ecuadorian Championship. And when the current crop are sold, others are ready to step in. Earlier this year Ecuador were crowned South American Under-20 champions, with a team in which many of the key players were from Independiente del Valle.
This contrast made for a fascinating Copa Sudamericana clash between the Argentines and the Ecuadorians. Union have a long tradition of representing an important community, but were enjoying their first international adventure. Independiente del Valle have little power of representation, but have deservedly won a fine reputation for producing players for the global market.
Both sides won their home legs 2-0. Independiente won the penalty shoot out. They go through to the next round, when things become more interesting.
It is unfortunate, though, that one of these sides had to say an early goodbye to the competition. The first round of the Copa Sudamericana has its highs and lows, but it was always interesting while Union Santa Fe were taking on Independiente del Valle.