For the past few months, you would be forgiven for thinking that ILFM solely focused on football here in Brazil and nowhere else. However, the fact is that I aim to write about all types of South American football, Argentine, Uruguayan, Venezuelan… You name it, I have a passion for it.
The remarkably exciting 2011 Campeonato Brasileiro season certainly took centre stage here on this blog, but now that it has been concluded, allow me to bring you up to date with everything else that’s going on in this beautiful continent.
I’ve spent a huge amount of time writing and commenting on the Brazilian league this season, so hopefully you will not need too much information to get up to speed. This truly historic season of the Campeonato Brasileiro came to a close last weekend, with Corinthians wrapping-up their fifth national championship after a 0x0 draw against rivals Palmeiras. Vasco ran them close throughout the season with superb individual and team performances, but in the end Vice Vasco had to settle for another silver medal to add to their already freakishly large collection (sorry Vascaínos…).
Below the top two, Fluminense, Flamengo and Internacional sealed the all-important Copa Libertadores places, with early title-challengers São Paulo and Botafogo missing out. At the bottom of the table, Cruzeiro narrowly escaped relegation on the last day with an emphatic 6×1 victory over fierce rivals Atlético-MG. Atlético-PR, Ceará, Avaí and América-MG were the teams that fell to Série B.
Over in Argentina, the 2011 Tornéo Apertura (‘opening stage’, for those unfamiliar with the South American short-season system) is drawing to a close without any great drama at the top of the table. Boca Juniors, in their first season without talismanic striker Martín Palermo, strolled to the title, their first in three years since the 2008 Apertura. Under coach Julio César Falcioni, Boca have managed to build a tough unit that is very responsible at the back, but also deadly on the counter-attack. Unbeaten in the Apertura so far and having only conceded four times, their defensive statistics speak for themselves, but their attack has also been impressive, especially considering the absence of San Martín and a long-term injury to Lucas Viatri.
Boca supporters, often known as los bosteros (literally ‘manure handlers’, a reference to the manure used in the old brick factory that once operated where Boca’s stadium La Bombonera stands today), have had plenty to cheer about in 2011. From seeing their rivals River Plate relegated to the second division in June, to this commanding Apertura performance, club morale at la Bombonera is sky-high. Now, a spot in the Libertadores group stage promises for an exciting 2012 for one of Argentina’s true grandes.
Elsewhere, 2011 Clausura champions Vélez Sarsfield, Arsenál de Sarandí and Lanús have already guaranteed themselves Copa Libertadores football for next season, and there is one more place up for grabs, with Godoy Cruz, Racing, Tigre, and Independiente still in the running with just one week left..
Copa América champions, it is certainly hard to argue against Uruguay as the best national side on the continent at this moment in time. However, despite the momentous rise of la Celeste on the international stage, such progress has yet to really filter down to the Uruguayan domestic game. Talent is being produced, but clubs do not have the resources to hold on to their promising players, and are almost always forced to sell them on to Europe at a young age (see Sebastián Coates as the most recent example).
There is still excitement and competition aplenty however, and this was certainly on display during the recently-concluded 2011 Apertura. After a frantic and dramatic finish, Nacional ended up with the trophy, becoming the first team in the era of short seasons (since 1994) to win an Apertura or Clausura after being seven points behind at any stage in the tournament.
This really was a remarkable push from Nacional. Coached by 35 year-old Marcelo Gallardo (former River Plate, PSG and Monaco midfielder) and led on the field by the ex-Internazionale midfielder Álvaro Recoba (only two months the junior of his youthful coach), Nacional stormed to seven victories in their last eight matches, leapfrogging their rivals in the process. How fitting it was then, that on the final day of the season, it would be Recoba himself who would seal the title win.
Away from home to Liverpool FC (Fútbol Club, not Football Club), the game was tied at 0x0 deep in the second half. If that scoreline had remained for the full 90 minutes, then Nacional would have finished the season in third, behind would-be champions Danubio and bitter rivals Peñarol. However Recoba, a half time substitute, willed the team forward in attack and scored a lovely finish with only ten minutes left. Picking up the ball on the edge of the box and shaping to shoot with his right foot, el Chino pulled off a ridiculous dummy, leaving his defender on the floor (he should have known better, Álvaro Recoba? With his right foot?) before curling a marvellous shot into the far corner with that mercurial left peg.
Nacional now qualify for the end of season playoffs to determine the 2011/12 Uruguayan champions, which will take place after the upcoming Clausura tournament.
I briefly touched on Chile when I analysed the Copa Sul-Americana semi final last week between Vasco and the famous la “U”, Universidad de Chile. They are certainly the main story of the Chilean season, having gone unbeaten in the Clausura and establishing themselves as one of the hottest teams on the continent. Their exhilarating Bielsa-esque playing style (boss Jorge Sampaoli is a faithful follower of Bielsa’s methods) has attracted admirers from all over the continent, and has even given rise to a new nickname, the Barcelona das Americas (‘American Barcelona’).
The 2011 Tornéo Clausura has now reached the playoff stage, where the top eight ranked sides battle it out to claim the Clausura title. La “U” have no real necessity to push on and win the Clausura, having already strolled to the Apertura title earlier in the season, guaranteeing their Copa Libertadores qualification. However, Sampaoli’s side will surely continue to work hard to maintain their remarkable unbeaten record, which after Sunday’s hard-fought 1×0 quarter final win over Unión Española, stretched to thirty two matches.
Next up, let’s go to Paraguay, and to a league that is really struggling to maintain credibility following a variety of incidents involving fan violence and stadium security, leading to more than one case of a match being abandoned.
The worst example of this was just this weekend, as Libertad took on fellow Asunción giants Cerro Porteño. The match was poised to be one of the best of the season, with only two points separating the two teams near the top prior to kick-off. We got a great first half, high tempo, exciting, and Cerro went in 1×0 up at the break thanks to a goal from Fredy Bareiro. However, just as the second half was about to kick-off, assistant referee Darío Gaona was struck down by a flare thrown from the nearby Cerro support. The match was swiftly abandoned after Gaona had to receive urgent medical attention on the touchline, making this the fourth match in the last month to be suspended.
What is even worse, is that Cerro escaped without any sanctions or punishments whatsoever, and the second 45 minutes was played on Tuesday night, with Cerro allowed to retain their 1×0 advantage. With no-one being held accountable for these incidents, the problem will only continue to grow, and subsequently bed itself into the very fabric of the Paraguayan game.
The 2011 Campeonato Descentralizado is very close to an end, with only the high-stakes championship playoff left to be contested. The big match will be between Alianza Lima and Juan Aurich, with the first leg taking place this evening (Thursday) before the decisive second leg in Lima on Sunday 11th December.
Behind the top two, Sport Huancayo, a team only founded four years ago, finished in third place and earned passage to the Copa Libertadores qualifying stage for the first time in their very brief history. Sport were thrust into the public eye in 2008, when in only their first full year of operation they managed to win the Copa Perú. They will face Argentines Arsenál de Sarandí in the first round, and I for one would like to wish them the best of luck.
Alianza Lima coming out on top was no surprise, but what was astonishing was the woeful campaign of Perú’s other two grandes, Sporting Cristal and Universitário. Usually perennial title challengers, Sporting Cristal had a difficult campaign and finished mid-table, while Universitário only narrowly escaped relegation amidst huge financial difficulties.
The second half of the 2011 season (the Torneo Finalización) is currently at the playoff stage, with the eight best-placed teams during the short season vying for the title. The winner will join Atlético Nacional (the winners of the 2011 Tornéo Apertura) as Colombia’s representatives in the 2012 Copa Libertadores group stages. There is also one more Copa Libertadores qualifying place available to the best-placed team in the 2011 running points totals (total points from Apertura and Finalización), and currently Once Caldas are poised to win that.
Nothing interesting going on in Colombia then. Right? Wrong. Take a look at this picture below:
‘What’s so special about it?’, you ask. Well, take a closer look. It’s only bloody Hamilton Ricard! Yes, the ex-Boro hitman is back in his native Colombia and is banging in the goals at the ripe old age of 37 for mid-table side Deportes Quindío.
Venezuela has never been a traditionally strong league in South America, partly due to the fact that in Venezuela, fútbol plays second fiddle to the nation’s favourite sport, baseball. As a result of this, the national football league is very poorly funded and gets much less attention. Although, with the meteoric rise of the Venezuelan national team, there are certainly signs that the domestic football setup is heading in the right direction.
With two rounds left to play in the 2011 Apertura, provincial club Deportivo Lara lead the way, attempting to win their first short season title since their foundation in 2006. National giants Caracas are not far behind however, and will be waiting to pounce should Deportivo slip up in their final matches.
In Ecuador, only the final playoff matches are still to be played before we can put a lid on the 2011 season. Opening stage winners Emelec face off against closing stage champs Deportivo Quito to determine the 2011 national champion. Parallel to this, bitter rivals Liga de Quito and El Nacional go up against eachother to determine third place, and a place in the 2012 Copa Libertadores.
Finally, in the spirit of leaving no man behind, a look at recent events in the Bolivian league. By far the weakest league in CONMEBOL, the Bolivian Primera is littered with mediocrity and a lack of consistency or any real identity have stopped this league from growing. For instance, the format is constantly changing. In 2005, the Bolivian FA decided to change the league calendar completely, in a bid to line up with FIFA’s August-to-May calendar. This only lasted one season though, and they quickly reverted back to the traditional February-December season used so often in South America.
However this season, despite the disorder that the attempted switch caused six years prior, the FA are returning to the August-to-May FIFA calendar. As you can imagine with such constant upheaval, the league season has been rather all over the place. The 2011/12 season will see teams playing THREE short seasons, a marathon that started in January and will only end next May, so as to synchronize themselves with FIFA.
So far in this gargantuan season, La Paz giants Bolivar won the superbly named Tornéo Adecuación (roughly translating as the ‘Reorganization Tournament’) and qualify to the Copa Libertadores group stages, while Real Potosí finished in second place, earning a spot in the Libertadores first round. Currently we are in the final stages of the Apertura season, which sees the eight best ranked teams enter into a play-off system to determine the winner. That should be wrapped up by 21st December, and the winner will join Bolivar in the Libertadores group stage.
To round off this whistle-stop tour of South America, a quick look at the two major continental competitions. The least-important of the two, the Copa Sul-Americana (or Sudamericana in Spanish-speaking South America) is nearing the end of a quite remarkable edition, with only the final left to play. Usually quite an undervalued tournament, this year has broke the mould with some quality teams on display and some superb entertainment. Universidad de Chile are in the final after defeating Brazilians Vasco in the semi final, and they will meet Ecuador’s Liga de Quito, a team with superb continental pedigree.
The draw for the 2012 Copa Libertadores, South America’s answer to the Champions League, took place on 25th November, and in typical CONMEBOL style, it was a complete non-event. As usual, the geniuses at CONMEBOL decided to hold the draw before anyone knew who half of the qualified teams were going to be, so you can imagine the ‘excitement’ of seeing Paraguay 1 drawn alongside Ecuador 2 and Argentina 3. Now that some time has passed however, we know more of the confirmed teams, but there are still a few gaps. Here is the draw updated as to the time of writing:
Arsenal-ARG x Sport Huancayo-PER
Real Potosí-BOL x Flamengo-BRA
Peñarol-URU x Caracas-VEN
Liga de Quito/El Nacional-ECU x Libertad/Olimpia-PAR
Internacional-BRA x Colombia 3
Chile 3 x Tigres-MEX
Alianza Lima/Juan Aurich-PER
Winner of Internacional-BRA/Colombia 3
Liga de Quito/El Nacional-ECU
Winner of Real Potosí-BOL/Flamengo-BRA
Winner of Chile 3/Tigres-MEX
Winner of Arsenal-ARG/Sport Huancayo-PER
Alianza Lima/Juan Aurich-PER
Winner of Liga de Quito/El Nacional/Olimpia/Libertad
Liga de Quito/El Nacional-ECU
Universidad de Chile-CHI
Winner of Peñarol-URU/Caracas-VEN