The current holders of the Copa Libertadores are Flamengo of Brazil, the country which also supplied 2017 winners Gremio. Before that, though, no Brazilian side had reached the final since 2013.
This is a glaring record of underachievement as Brazil’s clubs have a considerable financial advantage over their continental rivals. Their income is far greater, allowing them to pay higher salaries and therefore lure high profile internationals from other South American countries, attracted by the wages on offer.
The logical development, then, is for the Libertadores to be dominated by Brazil. This year that finally appears to be becoming a reality, although, even in death, Diego Maradona might have something to say about that.
Six clubs from Brazil made it through to the knockout stage of this year’s competition, where they all managed to avoid each other in the first round. There is a genuine chance, then, that six of the last eight teams will all be from the same country.
Three of them would seem to have a foot and a half in the quarterfinals. In last week’s first leg clashes, Santos, Palmeiras and Gremio all won on the road, and so this week they only need to avoid defeat at home to book their place. Palmeiras and Gremio can even afford to lose by a single goal. Palmeiras are 3-1 up on Delfin of Ecuador while Gremio have a 2-0 lead on Guarani of Paraguay. The lead of Santos is just a single goal,but they will surely feel that the hard part has been done after a 2-1 win at the altitude of Quito against LDU of Ecuador.
That leaves the three Brazilian clubs who are up against Argentine opponents. Flamengo may have had a touch of fortune to come back from Argentina with a 1-1 draw against Racing, on a night when their defence was frequently exposed. But Racing had similar problems dealing with the Flamengo front line, and back in Rio de Janeiro the Brazilians will be seen as favourites to qualify.
The same does not apply to Athletico Paranaense, who drew 1-1 at home to Argentine giants River Plate. Athletico carried their recent resurgence of form into last week’s first leg, and only conceded the equaliser in the final minute of the game. But by the end they were hanging on grimly, and their task in Argentina will not be easy, but it is not impossible. They could spring a surprise and become the fifth Brazilian club in the last eight, leaving it up to Internacional to complete the six.
Going into the round, Inter knew they would be facing a tough opponent who, before a ball has been kicked, may have become even tougher. They are up against Boca Juniors of Argentina, the team most associated with Maradona.
It was with Argentinos Juniors that Maradona began his career. He had a brief but memorable spell with Boca before heading off to Europe, and he ended his career with the club in the mid 90s. He was a fanatical Boca supporter, with his own private box at the stadium, from where he loved to take off his shirt, swirl it around his head and lead the chanting.
The profound emotion engendered by Maradona’s death at the age of 60 last week will now have to be channeled, and one outlet could well be the Libertadores campaign of Boca Juniors, and especially the current owner of Maradona’s famed No. 10 shirt, Carlos Tevez.
A strong bond existed between Maradona and Tevez. They share similar origins, products of the poverty, social exclusion and precarious life of the shanty towns on the periphery of Buenos Aires. And it left in both a fierce “take me as you find me” pride. They are also united by that stocky build, and by a love for Boca.
Maradona’s time as coach of the Argentina national team was progressing with a certain competence until he unbalanced the side by forcing the inclusion of Tevez. It made little sense, and it had disastrous consequences. But Maradona simply could not resist it. It was almost as if he felt represented by the presence of Tevez in the team.
And now some Boca fans will feel the presence of Maradona channeled through the deeds of Carlitos. True, Tevez is not a fraction of the player that Maradona was, but he is still a genuine Boca idol, and a fit, inspired Tevez can still make a difference in South American football.
The first leg between Internacional and Boca was supposed to take place in Brazil on Wednesday. Maradona’s death earlier in the day caused the match to be put back a week. Boca were back in action on Sunday for a 2-0 win over Newell’s Old Boys. Tevez and Co. have now had some time to process the sad news of last week and will enter the match against Inter with the memory of Maradona fresh in their minds.