With the Copa Libertadores semifinals set, we explore the extremely entertaining yet vastly underrated tournament and its companion, the Copa Sudamericana.
Most, if not all football fans are familiar with the UEFA Champions and Europa Leagues. The two continental tournaments are incredibly prestigious, and while they may be the world’s biggest club competitions in terms of reputation, you could make the argument that the most exciting continental club tournaments lie in the western hemisphere.
No, I’m not talking about the CONCACAF Champions League, but instead, the Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana. The intensity, passion, and chaos that surround these tournaments make them a must watch for any red-blooded fan of the game.
Now I am not going to lie and tell you all that I am a Copa historian that has been watching these tournaments my entire life. Nor am I going to say that these tournaments mean more than any other continental club competition, whether that be in UEFA, AFC, CAF, or CONCACAF. They all mean the perfect amount to the people who support their respective teams.
However, I will say that the Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana seem to mean more to the players. Whether it’s because South American football has yet to succumb to the globalization of world football, so the majority of these players are playing for their boyhood clubs, or the fact that the fanbases ensure that every player understands the intensity required to wear their respective badges, there’s a unique layer to this competition that makes it so compelling to take in.
Carlo Ancelotti recently stated that Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelian Tchouameni weren’t quite living up to their performances in training because the weight of the Real Madrid kit was “quite heavy.” And while this quote is about the Spanish football giants, it could apply to almost every single team that competes in these continental trophies. Each club is steeped in history, with a significant lack of foreign investment to paint over it. When a player puts on a Boca Juniors or Flamengo kit, they know exactly what it means, and the ones that don’t, cannot meet the required intensity that is demanded by fanbases that put football above almost everything else in their lives.
While the historical context is all well and good, the on-field product is something that is divisive. Sure, South American football is known for its flamboyance, whether it be the sophisticated dribbling skills or the diving and theatrics that can spurn away many “hardo” football fans. But, when you watch full matches, you actually see an immense amount of toughness. Some of the tackles in these games would warrant red cards in European football but don’t even yield a booking on the often rugged pitches of Brazil and Argentina. The referees tolerate significantly more arguing, fights, and for some reason, that makes the game more compelling, as it seems that the referee might actually change their decision when a player argues.
Another major plus of these tournaments is that you get to see the next generation of South American stars before they transition to the European football scene. This is an opportunity to increase your football snobbery, all while enjoying some top-level footballing drama. Perhaps the best example came in 2011, when a 19-year-old Neymar helped lead Santos to a title before his departure to Barcelona.
The 2022 Copa Libertadores semifinals will take place at the end of August and into the first few days of September. There is an all-Brazil semifinal with Athletico Paranaense (Fernandinho plays for them) taking on Palmeiras (watch out for their young defensive midfielder, Danilo). On the other side of the bracket, Velez Sarsfield takes on Flamengo. Athletico Paranaense will hope to clinch their first Copa Libertadores, while the remaining three clubs have all won the prestigious tournament in the past.
For all you North American football fans, I highly recommend that you try to watch the semifinals at the end of August. You might just find your new favorite tournament.