Europe-South America gulf widens
How would the top South American clubs fare in a major European league?
It is a question I am frequently asked. All too often any debate on this subject quickly degenerates into a depressing nationalist slanging match. Regular readers might recall that I have at times been shot at by both sides in this squabble - I've been accused of being a running dog of First World imperialism seeking to undermine South American football, but also of having gone native and turning against the land of my birth - which, I think, puts me in a good space to give an opinion. But that's all it is - my opinion. And as a wonderful South American phrase puts it, I'm not the sole owner of the truth.
The main evidence we can call on is the Club World Cup, which over the last four years has climaxed with a final between the champions of Europe and South America on neutral ground. With Manchester United's victory on Sunday the score now stands at two wins per continent.
So, a parity of forces? I don't think so. Instead I feel that this game is showcasing the immense chasm that now exists between the standard of club football in Europe and the rest of the world.
Until the last 10 years, the South American teams used to look forward to the annual game against the European champions (the predecessor of the Club World Cup) because it gave them a stage to show off their technical superiority. Not any more.
Three years ago Sao Paulo beat Liverpool 1-0. A year later Internacional overcame Barcelona by the same score. But the two Brazilian clubs did it with a tactical approach that recognised that they were outgunned.
Football is a low-scoring sport where the best side does not always win - this unpredictability adds greatly to the charm of the game. Sao Paulo and Internacional used this characteristic of football with great intelligence and application, defending deep, marking tight, hanging in there and launching one decisive counter-attack.
It was a similar approach to the one used by LDU, or Liga of Quito, in Sunday's match against Manchester United - and it kept them on level terms until 12 minutes from the end.
It is a style of play that is well suited to a one-off cup match. The stronger side is playing against the clock. As time ticks on with the game scoreless, their anxiety increases and they can leave themselves more open to the counter-attack.
Over the course of a league season, though, this approach is way too cautious to have much chance of success. With three points awarded for a win the only way to challenge for titles is to accept the risks of opening up in search of victory.
In these four years of the Club World Cup, the only South American team to have done this were Boca Juniors of Argentina, who last year traded punches with Milan toe-to-toe. The outcome - Milan won more clearly than the 4-2 scoreline might suggest. Of the four finals this was the most comfortable and the least nervy for the European side.
Boca were unable to cope with the pace, power, technical excellence and intelligence of Kaka. The best South American on the pitch was playing for the Europeans - the inevitable consequence of the undeniable fact that these days South American football has become an export industry.
The recent histories of Manchester United and LDU illustrate the point. United won the Champions League title in May, and since then they have strengthened their attack with the expensive acquisition of Dimitar Berbatov. LDU, meanwhile, have paid the price for success in contemporary South American football. Winning the Copa Libertadores put their players in the shop window, and as a result they were forced to part with two of them.
The lung power of Paraguayan international midfielder Enrique Vera (now in Mexico) was badly missed in Japan. The explosive right-sided attacking of Joffre Guerron (moved to Spain) was irreplaceable, as hugely impressive coach Edgardo Bauza knew it would be. Without some of his stars, against a line-up of world-class players from all over the world, a cautious approach was Bauza's only option.
If Liga de Quito, or any of the top South American clubs were placed straight into, say, the Premier League, they would find it very hard going. A gruelling league season is a very different challenge from raising your game for a one-off final.
But - and this is surely the key point - if they were in a major European league, receiving the same amount of money from TV and sponsorship, then they would be able to keep more of the players they produce. And if the likes of Kaka are lining up for the South American club, it's a different story altogether.
Comments on this piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
I hope that the quality of game and the command with which Liga de Quito defeated your "favourites" from Mexico opens up your scope to realize that soccer is more than big names and sponsors. It is about determination and dedication from a group (not from individuals) to a game and an objective.
No matter that Liga didn't win against Man U, they have proven that even with 1/10th of the resources of other teams from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, they have worked together as a team to beat the greatest odds and have demonstrated the improvement of Ecuadorian soccer making all that nation proud.
My BBC debut was a radio piece for World Service in 1997 about the rise of Ecuador. I said that they would probably not make it to France 98, but that they were a growing force who might qualify for future World Cups. If only all my predictions were that accurate!
So, no I don't think I need my scope opening - sounds painful anyway!. No doubt about it, Liga's achievement is a fantastic one, and even before the Club World Cup began I was arguing (and voting) for Edgardo Bauza as coach of the year.
Where we disagree is that I think football is about individuals as well as the determination and dedication you mention. I'm a big fan of Bolanos, Manso played well and there are lots of good, steady players in the team. But I think you would have preferred to go to Japan with Guerron and Vera - the final would have been more interesting with them on the field.
While travelling through Brazil in late 2005 I went to a few Corinthians games as they chased the championship. While the big names of the team were Tevez, Mascherano, Carlos Alberto, and Jo I think, a player who stood out ahead of them was Rafael Sobis, when he played for Internacional in a crucial game against Corinthians. He had excellent touch and control, a bit of pace and a very good football brain, and he seemed a fairly robust player as well. I wasn't surprised when he moved to Real Betis for big money shortly after. However very disappointed to see he has now moved to the UAE for Al-Jazira, chasing the money and effectively giving up on his career. Why has he gone down this route? There had been speculation about him making a move to the Premier League which I feel he would have been well equipped for.
'Effectively giving up his career' might be a bit harsh, but in general I'm with you all the way. I, too, liked him from day one, perky little striker, two footed, lots of talent. Brazil coach Dunga is a big fan as well, and has given him many opportunities.
Fair to say that he hasn't lived up to expectations yet, but what I find hard to understand is this - why give up on Spain after doing the difficult bit? The period of adaptation, the first 18 months or so, is usually the toughest time. What's the point of going through that and then leaving, for what in football terms is clearly a step backwards? Perhaps he's not being well-advised. Still, he's young enough to come again.