Tim Vickery Column: Strength in numbers needed by Brazilian clubs in Copa LibertadoresAtletico Mineiro are defending the title they won in 2013 -
The last four winners of the Copa Libertadores have come from Brazil – which is only to be expected. In professional football, money matters. And a financial chasm has opened up in the last few years between Brazilian clubs and those in the rest of the continent. Revenue has been flowing in from sponsorship and TV rights. As a consequence, talent from all across South America is heading for Brazil. Andres D’Alessandro of Internacional heads an ever stronger contingent of Argentine players in Brazil. But there are no high profile Brazilians in Argentina – the clubs there simply could not afford them.
It is no surprise, then, that Brazil is taking a grip on the Libertadores. The surprise is that the grip is not even tighter. Back in 2010 Internacional won the continent’s equivalent of the Champions League. That year, there were four Brazilian clubs in the last eight. One would have thought, that with Brazil’s financial advantage growing year by year, that such dominance would become increasingly noticeable. In fact, the opposite has happened.
In 2011 Santos, the eventual winners, were the only Brazilian club to reach the quarter finals – and they were lucky to get past America of Mexico in the second round. And in both the last two campaigns Brazil has contributed two of the last eight – Fluminense and both the champions, Corinthians in 2012 and Atletico Mineiro last year.
Had Atletico keeper Victor not saved an injury time penalty against Tijuana of Mexico, there would have been no Brazilian representation in the Libertadores semi finals – astonishing, given the financial balance of forces. As it is, Atletico needed a penalty shoot out to win both the semi final and the final. The decider was against Olimpia of Paraguay – whose entire wage bill would not come close to paying Ronaldinho. But that imbalance was never seen on the pitch. After a tense struggle which could have gone either way Atletico needed the drama of the shoot out to proclaim themselves champions.
There is something heartwarming in this – an observation that money might be important, but that it is not always determinant, that football always retains the capacity to spring surprises. It could also lead to an interpretation that domestic Brazilian football is performing well short of potential – a view that performances in the World Club Cup over the past few years would tend to support.
So what of this year? There are some interesting rivals in the field; San Lorenzo of Argentina, with a highly promising group of youngsters now coached by Edgardo Bauza, who took LDU of Ecuador to the title in 2008. Or Atletico Nacional of Colombia, under the fascinating Juan Carlos Osorio, winners of both Colombian championships and the cup in 2013. Or Cerro Porteno of Paraguay, with a bright new generation under Francisco Arce, former idol of Gremio and Palmeiras, who won the last domestic league without suffering a single defeat.
How will the Brazilian challenge stand up? Clearly, the team that everyone wants to see is Cruzeiro. Can they sustain the form that carried them so comfortably to the league title last year? Some have their doubts. Whatever happens, the format of the competition, with home and away knock out, will test them more than the Brazilian league was able to in 2013.
Astonishingly, of the 6 Brazilian sides in this year’s Libertadores, Cruzeiro are one of only two not to have changed their coach since the end of last season. Marcelo Oliveira continues in charge, as does Jaime de Almeida with Flamengo, an improvised stand in last October who grabbed his opportunity in fine style.
The other four have all made a change – a trend which has much to do with an alarming realisation made by Brazil’s clubs. Their spending was out of control. Suddenly the money is not so abundant.
TV rights revenues may have risen with a decade from R$300 million to RS1.5 billion, but, as sports business expert Amir Somaggi point out, “the clubs have spent it, and some have even taken out bank loans as well.” Suddenly the scenario looks bleaker. The government is now taking a harder line against clubs that run up fiscal debts. A year ago, writes Carlos Mansur in the ‘O Globo’ newspaper, “the sky seemed to be the limit in Brazilian football. However, the limit seems to have been exceeded, and the pre-season market of 2014 bears the mark of recession.”
Botafogo have also suffered from the loss of revenue resulting from the temporary closure of the Engenhao stadium. They have said a reluctant farewell to Clarence Seedorf. Coach Oswaldo de Oliveira has also moved on. No attempt was made to bring in a big name replacement. Instead they have gone for a cheap, in house solution, the promotion of former assistant Eduardo Hungaro – who has already been jeered by fans in the opening games of the Rio State Championship.
The club are taking a risk. Botafogo now embark on their first Libertadores campaign since 1996 – which begins with the home and away qualifying round against Deportivo Quito of Ecuador. Their opponents have altitude in their favour in their home leg, but are in far worse financial straights than Botafogo. Their star players from last year have all been sold, with a few replacements scrambled in. It would indeed be a disaster if Botafogo’s long awaited Libertadores adventure were to come to an end after just two games. Hungaro, then, is being thrown in at the deep end.
The other Brazilian side in the qualifying round are Atletico Paranaense, one of the shocks of last year’s domestic season. Their decision not to retain the services of coach Vagner Mancini can only be described as baffling. Perhaps it, too, was at least in part motivated by financial considerations. Atletico’s financial resources are being stretched by the need to get their stadium ready in time for the World Cup. In comes a Spanish coach, confusingly named Miguel Angel Portugal, who had been in charge of Bolivar in La Paz. Presumably he comes considerably cheaper than Mancini, and although Atletico are favourites to go through, opponents Sporting Cristal of Peru have enough firepower to make things interesting – a word that applies very neatly to the prospects of all six Brazilian sides in the 2014 Copa Libertadores.