Ladies and gentlemen, the world’s best club football competition is upon us. No, of course I’m not talking about the imminent knockout rounds of the Champions League, don’t be daft. This week sees the beginning of the group stages of South America’s much more enjoyable answer to UEFA’s competition, the Copa Libertadores. As ever, Argentina will be heavily represented in the tournament, and you can follow the fortunes of the Argentine sides right here…
The Copa Libertadores was first played in 1960, in response to a challenge issued by the then president of UEFA, Henri Delaunay, to CONMEBOL to play an annual ‘world championship’ match between the champions of the European Cup (now the Champions League) and the champions of South America. The match in question became the Intercontinental Cup and has now evolved into the World Club Championship.
Inititally, only the champions of the competing nations were allowed to enter, and the 1960 edition, known as the Copa Campeones de América, featured just 7 sides as a result (Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador didn’t enter any teams). Peñarol of Uruguay won the first Copa – pictured above in the National Football Museum in Montevideo – and lost to Real Madrid in the inaugural Intercontinental Cup. In 1965, the competition changed its name to the Copa Libertadores de América (‘Cup of the Liberators of the Americas’), the name by which, excepting sponsor’s rights, it’s still known today.
Since 1998, Mexican sides have been invited to take part in the competition in order to broaden the participation and, one suspects, to take advantage of the potential North American TV revenue. Today, the Copa is played on a similar format to UEFA’s Champions League – a group stage of 32 sides followed by knockout rounds from the last sixteen. The primary difference is that the final is also played over two legs, although away goals (which have only counted for the last couple of seasons) aren’t used in the final.
Argentine clubs have played a large part in the history of the Libertadores. Independiente have won the cup the most times, seven, whilst Boca Juniors are only one behind following their 2007 triumph, on six. As well as this, only two sides have been awarded the trophy for keeps after three consecutive wins, both Argentine; Independiente and Estudiantes. In total, Argentina have 21 Copas, with Brazil on 13, Uruguay 8, Paraguay with 3, Colombia on 2 and Chile on one. Two individual records belong to Argentina too: Daniel Onega scored 17 goals in the 1966 edition for River Plate as they reached their first final, still a record in one season of the competition, and Francisco Sa, who won four times with Independiente and twice with Boca, is the most decorated player in Libertadores history.
The Copa’s about more than only the big names and historic records, though, and that’s why I love it so much. Compared with European competition, in which only a handful of sides have a realistic shot at the Champions League each season, the Libertadores is wide open from the word go. Yes, Boca Juniors will start as heavy favourites, even more so given the return of Juan Román Riquelme, who did so well last season. But the Libertadores provides a remarkably even playing field, in spite, according to many fans, of CONMEBOL’s consistent favouring of the biggest clubs from Argentina and Brazil.
Last season, Colombian side Cúcuta Deportiva gave us the perfect illustration of this. Having just won their first ever domestic title, in their first ever season in Colombia’s top flight, Cúcuta took the Copa by storm, demolishing eventual beaten finalists Grêmio twice in the group stage, and taking some of the continent’s biggest clubs, including former winners Nacional of Uruguay, to the cleaners in their other ties on the way to a semi-final against Riquelme’s Boca. The Xeneize started as overwhelming favourites, but were stunned by a whirlwind second-half performance from their hosts in the first leg, and returned to La Bombonera needing a good win to go through.
That win eventually arrived, but only in controversial circumstances after the match took place in spite of fog so thick that the standard high-angle TV cameras couldn’t make out the far touchline or, for several minutes during the second half, the penalty boxes. Cúcuta’s lead striker Blas Pérez, what is more, was missing the second leg having been called up by Panama for their CONCACAF Gold Cup squad. This year, a tiny team probably won’t make the semi-finals, but what’s virtually guaranteed is that more of the continent’s established powers will be given a nasty shock somewhere along the way.
Argentina has six sides in the group stages, and although Lanús and Estudiantes will play each other, as well as Danubio of Uruguay and Deportivo Cuenca of Ecuador, in Group 2, they’ll be expecting at least four or five representatives in the last sixteen. Holders Boca Juniors are in Group 3 alongside Atlas of Mexico, Colo-Colo of Chile and Maracaibo of Venezuela; Bolivians Real Potosí, Venezuela’s Caracas and the Brazilians of Cruzeiro will be San Lorenzo’s opponents in Group 1; River Plate face Mexican Copa Sudamericana finalists América, Universidad de San Martín of Peru, and Universidad Católica of Chile in Group 5; whilst Copa Sudamericana winners Arsenal de Sarandí begin their first ever Libertadores campaign alongside Brazil’s Fluminense, Paraguay’s Libertad, and Ecuador’s LDU Quito in Group 8.
For all the groups, CONMEBOL’s website has the fixture list (scroll down to ‘Segunda fase’ – the first round, the qualifiers, has already been played). The road to the final in June starts here, and you can see how far along the way Argentina’s representatives get right here on Hasta El Gol Siempre. It’ll be fun finding out…
Photo by me