Libertadores da América. A name that implies strength: Liberators of America. A poetic name, made more poetic when listening to the official theme. Copa Libertadores might be the greatest club tournament in the world.
When asked most football fans would say, without a shadow of doubt, that the Champions League is the best. But while the concept of the Copa Libertadores is similar to the Champions League, its execution provokes very different reactions. Supporters do not see football matches, we see battles. Libertadores is such an obsession to any CONMEBOL club (and now even Mexican teams) that it transforms players into gladiators, foaming at the mouth due to the ecstasy and rage permeating the pitch.
The elation and the agony occur almost simultaneously. For instance, over the past few years, you’ve all gotten used to seeing Neymar score great goals. But have you ever seen Neymar score a great goal, scream “I’M FUCKING AWESOME”, put on a mask of himself (upside down) and get on his knees, begging not to be sent off? So sorry, Europe. Your pitches are greener, your stadiums more technological, your club brands’ worth billions, but you’re unlikely to be as sassy as South America.
Like any other tournament, the Copa Libertadores has changed over the decades. Today Argentina and Brazil are represented by five clubs (often one has six clubs in the competition, because the team that won the previous edition earns an extra spot for its country), and the others federations have three berths each. The winner of Copa Sulamericana – South America’s Europa League – is also entered. 26 teams qualify directly to the group stage, while the other 12 first play a knockout phase for the remaining six spots.
From there, like the Champions League, the tournament continues with two-legged knockout ties, although it typically takes place over six months rather than ten. Yes, teams from the smaller leagues in Europe start playing ten months before the final! But Libertadores is a matter of life and death, and fans’ hearts would not be able to endure that long.
La copa is lifted after a two-legged final. This year the second leg takes place on 27 July, at the stadium of the highest-ranked team that reaches the final. See, South Americans know it’s best to celebrate a trophy at home and refuse those single-legged finals at a neutral location.
Libertadores didn’t hold a lot of prestige in the beginning, especially for Brazilians; Santos even declined to participate in three editions (1966, 1967 and 1969). Pelé and his teammates probably thought “We have already won twice, we’re better off with friendlies against Europeans!” The truth, though, is that the financial rewards did not compensate for the travelling costs and, at a time in which South Americans barely had TV, the games were brutal and decisions were too biased in favor of the home team.
It’s better today, but to be an even more epic “product” Libertadores needs to have bigger prizes, so clubs can compete on higher levels and increase their global audience. After months of discussion and protests among the big clubs, it was announced last February that CONMEBOL would double the prizes as well as let go of the evil 10 percent it took from every match’s gross income. Still, we have plenty to fight for: the winner only gets around $8 million USD, while the club that wins the Champions League earns around $40 million USD, not counting television revenues.
But when the groups are drawn, managers have eyes for only two things: distance and altitude. South America is a huge continent and, now that Mexican teams are involved, travelling can be way more exhausting than the actual game, requiring proper logistical planning. But one would rather travel 24 hours straight than play at altitude. Altitude is the Pandora’s box of Libertadores. Most of the time, Ecuadorian and Bolivian teams manage to win at home simply because their players’ lungs are adapted to the thin air. Even Gareth Bale would have a hard time in Bolivia. Last year, former 2008 Golden Boy, Anderson, asked to be substituted only 36 minutes into the game, needing a balloon of oxygen.
“Between taking a penalty in the shootout or taking part in fight, I would rather help…fighting.”
Few players have had the honor of winning both the Libertadores and the Champions League. Only five Brazilians and four Argentinians, including Cafu (1992 and 1993 São Paulo, 2006-07 Milan), Dida (1997 Cruzeiro, 2002-03 and 2006-07 Milan), Carlos Tevez (2003 Boca Juniors, 2007-08 Manchester United), Ronaldinho Gaúcho (2005-06 Barcelona, 2013 Atlético Mineiro), and Neymar (2011 Santos, 2014-15 Barcelona) have managed to lift both trophies.
It’s not odd to that this list includes players of just these two nationalities. Argentina, after all, has appeared in the final 33 times, with 24 wins, and Brazil is close behind with 32 appearances and 17 wins. Like Barcelona’s MSN, the holy trinity of Libertadores is not complete without Uruguay’s 16 finals and 8 wins.
Since its beginning in 1960, 25 clubs have lifted the precious trophy, with Argentina’s Independiente winning all seven finals it entered, the most successful team to date. But Independiente’s last title was in 1984. In the 31 years since then, 22 clubs have lifted the copa, and no team has won twice since 2001. Those that complain about the same teams always winning in Europe should tune into the Copa Libertadores instead.
“Between taking a penalty in the shootout or taking part in fight, I would rather help…fighting.” Although this quote is from a Copa Sulamericana semifinal, Luis Fabiano perfectly describes the “spirit” of Libertadores. The games can easily escalate from violent tackles and intense teasing to an all-out brawl. There are so many examples we can’t display all the videos, but Boca Juniors x Sporting Cristal (1971), Colo Colo x Boca Juniors (1991), América x São Caetano (2004), Boca Juniors x River Plate (2004), Santos x Peñarol (2011) and Grêmio x Huachipato (2013) all show this “spirit”.
As though brawling weren’t enough, rivalries can escalate a harmless provocation into total chaos. Last year, Boca were the top seed in the group stages and River were the lowest, meaning they’d face each other in the Round of 16.. River had won 1-0 in the first leg, but the team with the best campaign always plays the second leg at home. Before the match started, home fans flew a drone over La Bombonera, trailing a giant white sheet painted with a red B (mocking River Plate’s relegation in 2011). But when River players returned for the second half, a fan from Boca managed to fire pepper spray into the tunnel, causing all sorts of damage to the Millionários men, including vomiting, skin burns and eye irritation. The match was suspended, CONMEBOL imposed sanctions, and Boca were ultimately eliminated from the tournament.
The best and the worst experiences in my football life involve Libertadores. Like a drug addiction, this tournament obliges us to reinvent ourselves. We profess our love more and more passionately, with amazingly creative chants, chilling receptions, gorgeous tifos, flares and papers. Libertadores es mi obsession. And although the title itself fulfills us, as a bonus the winner of Libertadores has a chance to face the champions of Europe, in a Davi e Golias clash.
We hold fast to what we have. And what we have the most is faith. Faith that corrupted confederations turn away from robbery, at least briefly, and pay attention to the innumerous problems of football in their countries. Faith that clubs will start acting more professionally, so we don’t have to say goodbye to our talents so early at such a cheap price. Ultimately, faith that despite bad administration, corruption, poverty and lack of infrastructure, the players on the pitch will represent our souls, our so tired yet joyful souls. Que coisa linda é uma partida de futebol.