Jack Lang previews the upcoming Copa Libertadores from a Brazilian perspective.
The Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition, returns this week, to the joy of football fans around the world. The tournament pits 32 sides from 11 countries against one another over a gruelling five-month campaign, all in the name of continental bragging rights.
The challenge of the Libertadores is as much geographical as it is sporting: clubs rack up thousands of air miles travelling to away matches around the continent. Corinthians, for instance, face group stage trips to both Mexico and Venezuela, meaning they stand to travel around 15,000 miles before even reaching the knockout phase.
The distance involved in the Libertadores makes away support a nigh-on impossibility for all but the most hardcore fans. This in turn guarantees fiery, partisan crowds throughout much of the tournament, as stadiums rally unanimously behind the home side. This lends the Libertadores its seductive, unique atmosphere.
The performance of Brazilian sides in the competition hasn’t always been of a piece with the country’s size and footballing tradition. Between Santos’ maiden title of 1962 and São Paulo’s successful campaign exactly thirty years later, clubs from Brazil managed a measly four titles.
Things have changed in recent years, however, with Brazil accounting for four of the last seven winners (and nine of the last fourteen finalists). The financial progress of the country over the last two decades has manifested itself on the football pitch, with Brazilian clubs learning to profit from their colossal potential fanbases.
With Santos having battled to their third title in 2011, Brazil boasts six representatives in this year’s competition. Of these contenders, at least three will have realistic pretentions of perpetuating Brazil’s recent stranglehold on the competition.
Key players: Paulinho, Alex, Liédson
Group 6 opponents: Deportivo Táchira (Ven), Nacional (Par), Cruz Azul (Mex)
Boasting robust, settled tactics and an impressive squad, Corinthians will hope to make amends for last year’s disastrous campaign (the Timão were eliminated in the qualifying round). With Adriano continuing to fight losing battles with fitness (and hunger), Liédson will again lead the line for the São Paulo outfit. The side’s real strength, though, is in midfield: in Paulinho and Ralf, Corinthians have at their disposal two of Brazil’s most consistent performers. Only time will tell if Corinthians’ trademark solidity is enough.
Coach: Joel Santana
Key players: Vágner Love, Ronaldinho, Léo Moura
Group 2 opponents: Olimpia (Par), Emelec (Ecu), Lanús (Arg)
Life at Gávea is never dull, but the opening month of 2012 has been particularly fraught. Disagreements between Ronaldinho and coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo led to the latter being sacked and replaced by the loveable Joel Santana (he of limited mastery of the English language). The signing of Vágner Love has at least lightened the mood: the striker represents a huge upgrade on the side’s attacking resources. If he dovetails well with a certain buck-toothed playmaker, Fla could be a decent outside bet. Either way, expect fireworks.
Coach: Abel Braga
Key players: Fred, Thiago Neves, Rafael Moura
Group 4 opponents: Boca Juniors (Arg) Arsenal de Sarandí (Arg), Zamora (Ven)
Flu endured a strange 2011, mounting an improbable late title surge after disappointing for months on end. As ever, their fortunes are largely tied to those of talismanic striker Fred: when he fires, the Tricolor can be a match for anyone. A solid squad has been boosted by the additions of left-footed schemers Wágner, Wellington Nem and Thiago Neves, all of whom bring quality in attack. The latter in particular has extensive Libertadores experience with Fluminense, having starred in the club’s run to the 2008 final.
Coach: Dorival Júnior
Key players: Leandro Damião, Andrés D’Alessandro, Oscar
Group 1 opponents: Juan Aurich (Per), The Strongest (Bol), Santos (Bra)
Champions in 2010, Inter have garnered a reputation as continental specialists in recent times. With the superb Leandro Damião leading the line, the Colorado will not be short of firepower, whilst the arrival of Jésus Dátolo takes the club’s tally of ‘hermanos’ (Argentine imports) to an impressive four. Andrés D’Alessandro’s decision to snub a lucrative offer to play in China has created a feel-good factor at Inter, who will be confident of reaching the latter stages this term. Their creaking defence, however, does provide cause for concern.
Manager: Muricy Ramalho
Key players: Neymar, Ganso, Borges
Group 1 opponents: Juan Aurich (Per), The Strongest (Bol), Internacional (Bra)
Santos have managed to cling on to the majority of the side that swept to victory in last season’s competition, and look well placed to challenge again in their centenary year. Whilst the departures of Alex Sandro and Danilo leave the Peixe looking slightly short in defence, few could argue with an attack boasting Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso. The addition of Uruguayan full-back Jorge Fucile should lend the side extra experience, whilst Borges will hope to maintain his deadly form of 2011.
Vasco da Gama
Manager: Cristóvão Borges
Key players: Dedé, Diego Souza, Juninho
Group 5 opponents: Nacional (Uru), Alianza Lima (Per), Libertad (Par)
Vasco will hope to build on the good feeling generated by their Copa do Brasil win and thrilling title challenge in 2011. A side built around the defensive rock that is 23-year-old Dedé, the Rio outfit have made only furtive forays into the transfer market. Former Lokomotiv Moscow centre-back Rodolfo should prove a good investment provided he has fully recovered from a horrific injury suffered midway through last year, whilst Carlos Tenorio and Matías Abelairas give the squad a more continental look. A question mark remains, however, over the ability of old-timers Felipe and Juninho Pernambucano to stay fit over the course of the tournament.