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River Plate's third-place win doesn't hide that South American football continues to lose ground

River Plate salvaged third place but failing to reach the final ensured it  was a disappointing tournament for the Argentine side.
River Plate salvaged third place, but failing to reach the final ensured it was a disappointing tournament for the Argentine side.

River Plate can fly back to Argentina with smiles on their faces. Saturday's 4-0 win over Asian champions Kashima Antlers of Japan is a morale boost, making it easier to recall the historic 5-3 aggregate win over local rivals Boca Juniors in the final of the Copa Libertadores -- and easier to forget the defeat on penalties to Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday.

There is only one problem with the victory over Kashima. It was in the match to contest third place -- in a competition where anything less than second is a disaster for South America.

Since Tuesday there have been plenty of attempts to overlook the game against Al-Ain. Two fallback positions have repeatedly been called upon. That is was just one game, and so it would be foolish to read too much into it -- and that the one that really mattered was the game against Boca.

Both positions are false. Both are the product of a state of denial.

The idea that the Al-Ain result was a freak accident can easily be dismissed. In its current format, the Club World Cup was introduced in 2005. It would seem to mean more to the South Americans than anyone else -- it is certainly the case that thousands of South American supporters make the heroic journey to cheer on their team. The appeal is simple -- the chance to have a crack at the glamorous winners of Europe's Champions League.

Less than 20 years ago, when the sides used to meet in a one-off game in Japan, this was still a fair fight. The opening up of the global market in football has changed the balance. These days the best South Americans -- and the stars from all the other continents -- are usually playing for the Europeans.

South America has managed to win the trophy on three occasions -- all 1-0 victories by Brazilian clubs, in 2005, 2006 and 2012 -- all based on an acknowledgement of the superiority of the opponent. South America used to look forward to these occasions as an opportunity to outplay their rivals. The aim now is to defend deep, hang on for dear life and hope to launch an effective breakout. The imbalance is clear. But, for South America, it is more painful than merely falling behind Europe. The evidence is clear that it is losing its advantage over the other continents as well.

The semifinal stage has become a tough game for the Libertadores champions since 2005. And now on four occasions -- two of them in the past three years -- the South Americans have fallen at that stage of the competition. This year is the first time it has happened to a team from Argentina. But it forms part of an undeniable larger pattern.

River Plate star Gonzalo Martinez is set to move abroad, an all too frequent trend which has had major consequences on the South American game.
River Plate star Gonzalo Martinez is set to move abroad, an all too frequent trend that has had major consequences on the South American game.

The argument that River Plate's win over Boca trumps everything is also bogus. Boca against River is truly one of football's great occasions, but its historical importance goes well beyond local bragging rights. It has also been a marvellously intense test of excellence.

Now, however, it looks like a parochial event. When the winning team is unable to overcome Al-Ain, and this result is placed in the context of the history of the Club World Cup, it is inevitable that some of the gloss is removed from the Buenos Aires derby. Boca-River becomes an exotic event, of huge historical and cultural importance, featuring several fine players. But in the global picture, it loses some of its relevance. These are two great clubs. But neither of the teams are big hitters on the world stage any longer.

The 2018 version of River Plate perhaps are not a typical example of recent Libertadores winners, many of whom have come to the Club World Cup with a cautious mindset. River have considerable creative possibilities, and in Marcelo Gallardo, an attack-minded coach. But their defensive line is slow -- a chronic problem in contemporary South American football. It cost them against Al-Ain, and they led a charmed life against Kashima, who rattled the bar three times and had a shot miraculously blocked on the line.

The key moment in the game against Kashima was River's second goal, scored just inside the last 20 minutes, which effectively sealed the result. Juan Fernando Quintero crossed from the right, Julian Alvarez produced a magnificent turn and sideways pass for Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez to slam home. he first player is on loan from Europe, the second is an 18-year-old who is unlikely to stay for long, and the goalscorer is on his way to Atlanta United of the United States.

The transformation of South American football into an export industry has taken a huge toll on the quality of the club game. The continent's football continues to produce vibrant atmospheres and wonderful young players. But it can no longer sustain great teams. Success puts players in the shop window, and they are sold abroad, at an ever younger age.

It is a tale of missed opportunities. Some two and a half decades ago, the Asian market was up for grabs. South America had an early lead -- its role, especially that of Brazil, in popularising the game in Japan, for example. It is not inconceivable that, had South American football got its act together, millions in Asia would now be following clubs like River, Boca, Flamengo and Palmeiras rather than Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United.

Instead, globalisation has taken place on the terms of the European clubs. They hold the power. The idea of a giant, 24-team Club World Cup held every four years is a hugely attractive one to all the other continental federations. It would be a huge money grabber. But, there is no denying, it all depends on whether the Europeans are willing to turn up and share the spotlight.

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