Ivan Belička –
The international tournament scene in South America may be the one that most resembles the famed and more affluent competitions in Europe. All the same, there are some essential differences that might surprise the uninitiated. Many find the realities of Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana to be more exciting than those of the polished spectacle of Champions league and Europa League.
The Copa Sudamericana, is the continent’s equivalent to the Europa League. Its 15th edition is currently at the semi-final stage, and journalists around the continent are once again repeating the well-known clichés about teams’ dreams of achieving the other half of the glory. There are new underdog stories as well, with teams such as Chapecoense, and Cerro Porteño trying to enter the headlines. Because I’m following it from Europe, I am feeling a little nostalgic as well, for this time last year I was a regular at Independiente Santa Fe and, therefore, was able to celebrate the title victory of the Colombians from the stand.
The predecessors of the Copa Sudamericana
The idea to create a second continental competition that mirrored the European UEFA Cup came at the beginning of the 1990s, and it was intended for the clubs that were not able to qualify for the Libertadores. The result was called Copa Conmebol and was competed 8 times from 1992 to 1999. At the time, similar to the Libertadores, the teams from the big two—Argentina and Brazil—dominated the competition. The creation of the tournament meant that some clubs such as Rosario from Argentina, and Atletico Mineiro from Brazil, which has won the title twice, could win their first international titles. Nevertheless, the competition never quiet caught on and was canceled in 1999.
What was left were two separate regional competitions which, at first, ran parallel to the Copa Conmebol. Copa Mercosur and Copa Merconorte have seen four editions in the years from 1998 to 2001. The southern cup (with the usual big shots from Brazil and Argentina, in addition to teams from Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile) was again monopolized by teams from Argentina and Brazil, while the northern cup (with relatively poorer football federations) was usurped by Colombian sides winning it on all but four occasions. The experiment with regional competitions didn’t proceed that well either, and in 2001 the plans were set for the big Pan-American Cup, to which teams from both CONMEBOL and CONCACAF were invited.
The history of the Copa Sudamericana
The Pan-American project failed, however, due to many obstacles in scheduling and the potentially enormous travel costs for the teams involved. What happened instead, was the quickly organized Copa Sudamericana, with its first edition taking place in 2002. The first incarnation was influenced by the absence of the Brazilian teams since the Brazilian federation couldn’t change their already set schedule. The competition was organized as a knock-out tournament, with 21 teams entering the competition in its first year and approximately 34 teams in the following years. The first winner of Copa Sudamericana was San Lorenzo, after they defeated the Colombian side Atlético Nacional in the final.
As early as its second year, the Sudamericana produced its first, and perhaps the most famous of its underdog stories. All attention that year went to Cienciano, a relatively unsuccessful club from the city of Cusco in the Peruvian Andes. The unlikely winner battled through the likes of Santos and Atlético Nacional, to meet River Plate led by Manuel Pellegrini, and with stars such as Maxi Lopez and experienced Chilean legend Marcelo Salas in the squad in the final.
The first match in Buenos Aires went well for Cienciano, achieving a goal-rich draw of 3-3. The match in Peru appeared to be in shambles after a red card in 58th minute, but the goal from a free-kick against the run of play by Carlos Lugo, one of the two internationals in the team, cemented their win, the first (and to this day last) international cup for any Peruvian club. The wild scenes from around the country celebrating the triumph captured the hearts of many, and that win alone strongly established the Copa Sudamericana as a prestigious and permanent competition.
The competition produced several other stories and firsts in the following years. The next two trophies were lifted by heavyweights Boca Juniors but, in their first final, the Bolivian club, Bolívar, came very close to being the first Bolivian success on a club level. The Mexican club, Pachuca, who lifted the first ever Conmebol trophy by Concacaf team in 2006, was the next successful underdog story. Unfortunately, after América almost repeated the feat for Mexico the next year, the Mexican presence in Sudamericana was cut short due to scheduling problems. After a win for Internacional de Porto Alegre in 2008, LDU Quito became the first Ecuadorian team to lift the trophy in 2009.
The 2010s have seen a first big expansion and reorganization of the tournament, making it more inclusive and equitable for the majority of football countries. Even though the generous 8 spots for Brazil and 6 spots for the Argentina were preserved, the number of spots for all other federations was increased from two to three (and later, in 2012 to four). The rather odd agreement of permanent spots for two Argentinian superclubs Boca and River Plate in the 1/8 finals, regardless of their achievements, was also canceled.
The 2010s started with the first international title after 26 years for Independiente de la Avellaneda, the historically most successful club in Libertadores. In the next year Universidad de Chile achieved its first international title, as well as the first title for Chile. The following three years have seen another series from Argentinian and Brazilian clubs, with Santos, River Plate and Lanús each winning a title.
After two participations in the final from Atlético Nacional, last year it was their rivals, Santa Fe, who achieved their first Copa Sudamericana win and first international title, after a hard-fought and tight campaign, led by the likes of Luis Manuel Seijas and Wilson Morelo as well as its Argentinian legendary playmaker Omar Pérez. However, the last years have seen also one of the dullest finals in living history, when neither the future champions, Santa Fe, nor the finalists, Huracán, could score a single goal in 180 minutes of football and the following 30 minutes of extra time—the first such an occasion in all the international finals on the continent. Nevertheless, by winning, Santa Fe confirmed the very good positions of Colombian club football, which was further emphasized by an enthusiastic win of Libertadores by Nacional.
This year’s incarnation appears, once again, to be full of surprises. While I am writing this, Sudamericana is contesting the semi-finals and, of the four clubs left, only one club has previously won the competition—San Lorenzo way back in 2002.
La otra mitad de la gloria
The Copa Sudamericana will never reach the heights of the Libertadores, but it is not Europa League either, and it enjoys enough popularity on the continent. One good reason is that the Libertadores, and the Sudamericana, do not overlap, and Sudamericana, therefore, as the only big international competition running in South America from August to December, captures the attention of the football fans.
Also, the popular European leagues and Champions League are still in their opening phases, which adds a bit more of the spotlight. Because of this timing, it is also not strictly a second tier tournament as the Europa League is in Europe—many big clubs participate both in Libertadores and Sudamericana, depending on their respective systems of qualification.
That will change after 2017, however, when both Libertadores and Sudamericana will go through another major reorganizations. Both competitions will run at the same time, from March to November and in the later stages, Sudamericana will even receive 10 teams from the third placed clubs during the group stage of Libertadores, which mirrors the current system in Europe. The changes, it is hoped, will not lead to similar problems as its European counterpart, where the Europa League has become very much an ignored competition, for the Sudamericana has provided many wonderful underdog football stories.