Libertadores domination: Why Brazilian clubs are bossing the Copa

In Depth

The Copa Libertadores is the holy grail of South American football. The best clubs from each of the 10 nations in the Conmebol region go up against each other annually for the chance to call themselves continental champions. 

But come the semi-final stage of the 2021 Libertadores in September, it is possible that only one country will be represented.

This week sees the four quarter-final second legs take place. With Sao Paulo taking on Palmeiras in one of them, one Brazilian semi-finalist is guaranteed. In the other three, Flamengo, Atletico Mineiro and Fluminense face Olimpia of Paraguay, Argentinians River Plate and Ecuador’s Barcelona, respectively.

Though it is not guaranteed, there is a chance that all three of those Brazilian sides could progress.

In last week’s first leg, Flamengo hammered Olimpia 4-1 in Asuncion. With the unrivalled attacking strength at their disposal, they are overwhelming favourites to win again at the Maracana on Wednesday night.

Atletico Mineiro will play River Plate immediately after that game and they too hold an advantage, albeit a slimmer one, having beaten River 1-0 in Buenos Aires last week. With Hulk leading the line and Matias Zaracho and Eduardo Vargas nipping around behind him, River will struggle to hold them at bay.

Finally, Fluminense will travel to Ecuador to play Barcelona on Thursday. The sides drew 2-2 in Rio de Janeiro in their first game, so Barcelona – who in recent years have perhaps been the strongest Libertadores contenders from outside Brazil or Argentina – will fancy their chances. But a Fluminense side that features some fine academy graduates backing up veteran striker Fred are not out for the count.

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READ: Hulk: Dominating in Brazil & looking to smash River Plate in the Libertadores

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And even if one of Fluminense, Atletico and Flamengo go out, it would still be the first time the Libertadores semi-finals have featured three clubs from the same country.

Given that the 2020 Libertadores final was played between Santos and Palmeiras and that Flamengo won it the previous season, the picture painted is clear. Brazil is dominating continental football. The obvious question, then, is: why?

Firstly, the obvious answers. Brazil has a population of more than 210 million, which is approximately equal to the combined population of the nine other Conmebol members. It is a football-loving nation that produces a seemingly endless stream of professional players and has over a dozen well-supported clubs from big, industrial cities.

But that has long been the case and Brazil has not always bossed the Libertadores, certainly not in the way it is doing now.

Between the foundation of the Libertadores in 1960 and 1991, Brazilian clubs won five of 32 Copas on offer, with winners also coming from Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay and, principally, Argentina. And though Brazilians won 13 of the 27 editions between 1992 and 2018, it was still a long way from the total domination we are seeing now.

So, what has changed? A lot goes back to two format changes that were introduced in 2017, which were designed to make the tournament more commercially viable and have favoured Brazil and Argentina.

First, the competition was changed to a year-long affair, where previously it was squashed into the six months from February to July.

The lengthening of the competition makes it less susceptible to the influence of unpredictable bursts of form that can see smaller teams surge to the final, as Independiente Del Valle did in 2016. It also means the richer sides can strengthen during the course of the Libertadores, as Flamengo did in 2019, while the poorest are more likely to sell players.

At the same time, the tournament was expanded from 38 to 47 teams, with at least eight Brazilian clubs and seven Argentinian clubs included each year. More participants of course means more chance to win.

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Since those changes, the economic gap between Brazilian clubs and the rest – which always existed to some degree, but was not taken advantage of – has also widened, thanks to a few Brazilian giants like Flamengo and Palmeiras finally sorting out their previously messy finances and the greater television and sponsorship money on offer in the Brazilian league.

Transfermarkt’s player valuations are imperfect, but if we take them as a rough guide, Brazilian clubs had seven of the 10 most valuable squads in the 2021 Libertadores.

Now, even the two South American giants that lorded it over the Brazilians in the first two decades of this century – Boca Juniors and River – find it more difficult to compete financially.

A scheme that saw the Argentinian government buying the domestic league’s TV rights at an inflated rate was put to a stop in 2017. The Argentinian economy has also contracted each year since 2018 and there has been a long-running inflationary crisis, which has seen one US Dollar go from buying around 20 Argentinian Pesos in early 2018 to almost 100 in 2021.

With many players demanding wages in US Dollars to avoid inflation affecting their earnings, it has seen clubs from Brazil – where inflation is an issue but is not so out of control – move ahead of the Superclasico duo in terms of purchasing power.

Indeed, the days between the two legs of the Libertadores finals provided the perfect example. River’s opponents Atletico – who had already taken River’s best player, Nacho Fernandez, at the beginning of 2021 – recently announced the signing of ex-Chelsea and Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa.

That gap could still worsen too, in part thanks to the success of the Libertadores itself. As stated, the idea behind having more Brazilian and Argentinian sides in the competition was to boost television revenues.

It has been successful, which is reflected in prize money. The last Libertadores champions from outside Brazil or Argentina were Colombia’s Atletico Nacional in 2016 – the year before the rule changes. They took a purse of US$7.75million. For the 2020 edition, Palmeiras got US$22.5million along with the trophy.

With most of the total pot of prize money going to the teams that reach the latter stages, there is worry across the rest of South America that the Brazilians will pull further away.

As UOL Esporte columnist Marcelo Rizzo wrote earlier this month, the Brazilian Libertadores domination “has caused a mixture of concern and dissatisfaction inside Conmebol.”

“In a meeting of the confederation’s counsel last week,” Rizzo continued, “representatives of some national federations questioned [Conmeol’s] directors about the possibility of the tournament becoming predictable and discouraging investment [in club football] in some countries.”

The idea of reducing the number of Brazilian clubs in the competition is a non-starter, however, given the money it has generated. The only possible answer, then, is a more equal redistribution of money among all the Libertadores participants, regardless of how deep they go in the tournament. It is for that, Rizzo wrote, that the smaller nations’ football bosses are pushing.

By Joshua Law

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