Copa Libertadores gets new lease of life for 2017, but questions remain
Until just a few years ago, the draw for the Copa Libertadores gave only the vaguest idea of what the tournament was going to look like.
The ceremony was held in November, before the South American championships had been decided. It was not yet clear which teams would be participating -- which made it hard to get excited about the prospect of a clash between Paraguay 2 and Ecuador 1.
Now, the draw is being held later. This year it is taking place on Wednesday -- the day the last ball is kicked in the continent's first divisions. The only league still to finish is Bolivia, which defines its qualifiers for the Libertadores on the basis of the previous season -- in this case 2015-16. And so, with the Colombian championship coming to a close on Sunday night, we now know the identity of all of the clubs who will be competing in the 2017 version of South America's Champions League equivalent.
Even so, there are still plenty of things that we will discover along the way.
Next year marks a new era for the Libertadores. Traditionally it has been squeezed into one half of the year -- typically the first semester. But in 2017 it will run from late January all the way through to the end of November.
The change is clearly part of a panic stricken response by CONMEBOL, the South American football confederation, to the events of the past two years. The organisation has found itself mired in the FIFA-gate scandal, while leading clubs have become increasingly restless about the poor financial return they receive from taking part in its competitions. Fearing that the clubs might breakaway to organise their own tournament, CONMEBOL has been thinking of ways to make the Libertadores more lucrative, and top of the list was the extension to a year-long format.
It was, though, announced in such a hurry that it brought undesired consequences. Since 1998, Mexican clubs have been invited to take part, giving the tournament access to a huge television market. The Mexicans had not been consulted about the switch in format -- in fact, it seems that almost no one had been consulted. And so, unable at short notice to conciliate the playoff format of their domestic league with an extended Libertadores, Mexican clubs have pulled out -- at least as far as the 2017 edition is concerned.
This has opened up three places to a tournament that was already being expanded. The base format remains the same -- 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four, competing for 16 places in the knockout phase. But the qualifying competition has grown too.
In recent years a total of 38 clubs have taken part, with 12 of them competing in a quick qualifying round for the final six slots in the group stage. The original plan for next year was to have a total of 44 clubs, with an enlarged, two-stage qualifying process, with 16 clubs competing for 4 places. The absence of Mexico has forced a further expansion. We now have 47 clubs involved, and three stages to get through before the group phase even starts.
Stage one was brought about purely as a result of the Mexican withdrawal. Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia had already been handed extra slots. And so, in this new first qualifying round, there is an extra representative from each of the other six nations -- Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. They will be drawn against each other, with the three winners going through.
Stage two has 16 teams; with one club from each of the 10 countries, plus an extra team from Brazil, Chile and Colombia, joining the three winners from stage one. They will be drawn against each other, and then the eight winners of these ties advance, where a further knockout round reduces the field to the four sides who then go into the group phase proper.
Can teams from the same country be drawn against each other? We will find out soon. And how will it all pan out over the year? Up until now the group phase has got underway in mid-February, following a two-week qualification round. This three-stage qualification process will clearly take a lot longer, meaning that the group phase will surely not get underway until March. And then how will the calendar deal with the break in domestic football in most (though not all) of the 10 countries around June and July?
These questions should be clarified on Wednesday at the draw. But there is one big doubt about the new format which cannot be answered so soon. The obvious problem of a year-long Libertadores is the (European) summer transfer window. There is a danger that the best teams will be ripped apart just as the competition reaches the knockout stage, with the best players cherry picked by big clubs from across the Atlantic (and perhaps China, the Middle East and MLS as well).
The threat is clear. We will have to wait to find out just how damaging it proves to be to the new model Copa Libertadores.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.