The draw for this year’s Copa Libertadores has thrown up the prospect of some wonderful matches. In the field of 32, at least 14 teams have already won the biggest prize in South American club football, and that number could swell to 16, depending on the outcome of the qualifying round.
Each of the eight groups has a former champion in its midst. Perhaps the most enticing group has three — 2019 winners Flamengo of Brazil; LDU Quito, who are always dangerous with the advantage of the altitude of the Ecuadorian capital; and the young and attractive Velez Sarsfield of Argentina — plus Union La Calera of Chile, who left such a positive impression in last year’s Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s Europa League equivalent.
There is the prospect of some thrilling football in the next few months; true, without the quality of the Champions League on the other side of the Atlantic, but with an extra dose of unpredictability to throw into the mix. But there are huge obstacles, too. Getting through the fixtures of this tournament will not be easy at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is at its worst in South America, with the P1 variation in Brazil taking a terrible toll and starting to do so in other countries around the continent.
Much significance can be found in the fate of the qualifying game between Independiente del Valle of Ecuador and Gremio of Brazil. The first leg was to have taken place in Quito on Wednesday. Instead it has been switched to Friday night in Paraguay. Three Gremio players tested positive for the virus after the Brazilian delegation had arrived in the Ecuadorian capital, and coach Renato Portaluppi, who showed symptoms on the eve of the journey, did not travel.
🤩🏆⚽ The #Libertadores Group Stage draw in full!
🔜 Action starts on April 20th! pic.twitter.com/PAHeRNuAdq
— CONMEBOL Libertadores (@TheLibertadores) April 9, 2021
A few months ago, this would not have been an obstacle to the match going ahead as planned. In September, Flamengo had an outbreak while they were in Quito and then moved down the coast to Guayaquil to play another Libertadores game. The local health authorities tried to stop the match from going ahead, only to be overruled by the government at national level.
Now, no one is taking chances. The P1 variant has yet to be detected in Ecuador. Gremio were not even let out of their hotel to train. The balance of political forces was now different: There was no way that the game would go ahead in Ecuador, so CONMEBOL swiftly moved it to Paraguay.
Once the group phase gets going on April 20, CONMEBOL may find themselves having to take this step more often. It is not yet clear which countries will permit the entry of Brazilian teams.
Colombia wouldn’t seem to be one of them. In February they barred the entry of a Brazilian basketball team, and one of the reasons that last month’s World Cup qualifiers had to be suspended was that Brazil were due to visit the country. Peru have also closed frontiers; in Gremio’s previous qualifying round they played Ayacucho, who had to stage their home leg in Ecuador. It is unclear whether Ecuador would accept this again, spooked as they are by the Gremio outbreak this week. Bolivia and Chile have also shut the door on Brazil; will they be willing to make an exception for football teams? If not, then CONMEBOL have a further organisational headache. There will surely be political pressure in other South American countries to play it safe and limit contact with Brazil.
The 2021 Copa Libertadores, then, holds out the promise of some fascinating football — provided it can all go ahead. And for things to go smoothly, the organisers may well need as much skill and improvisation as the players.