Copa becoming Brazilian show
As English clubs take a stranglehold on the Champions League, a similar dynamic seems to be taking place in the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent. There are signs that it is becoming a Brazilian show.
There are differences. The Libertadores is much harder to predict than the Champions League because it is much more difficult to sustain success in South America. The constant sale of the best players leaves even the biggest clubs in a permanent state of flux.
This leaves more room for a surprise team to come through, such as LDU of Quito, who last year became the first Ecuadorian winners of the Libertadores (and who, on their showing so far, have little chance of retaining their title).
If a team from Ecuador are the reigning champions, and Argentina's Boca Juniors won it the year before, where is the Brazilian domination?
In the long-term, it is in the underlying pattern. Both LDU and Boca overcame Brazilian opponents in the final, and there were all-Brazilian finals in the previous two years.
Traditionally the Libertadores has been Argentina's thing - their clubs have won in 21 of the 49 years of the competition. But since River Plate last triumphed in 1996, Boca Juniors are the only Argentine side to reach the final. Ten Brazilian clubs have done so in this time.
In the short-term, hints of Brazilian supremacy are there in this year's performances. It is very early days. We are almost halfway through the group stage. The Libertadores, like any cup competition, tends to go to the team that hits form at the right time.
The most brilliant campaign I've seen in my 15 years in South America was Boca's in 2003, when they suddenly found the right position for Carlos Tevez and won both legs of the quarter, semi and the final. Up to that point, though, they had not been particularly impressive.
But, bearing in mind that it is too early for definitive conclusions, this year the challenge from Argentina is not convincing. So far their five representatives have accumulated five wins and six defeats, scoring 12 goals and conceding 15.
Boca, in a weak group, have won both their opening games. But even a diehard fan would concede that they have yet to find the right balance after selling left-sided midfielder Datolo to Napoli. Datolo's pace and lungpower were crucial in opening up space for Riquelme.
River Plate have made an uncertain start. I suspect they will improve - keeper Barbosa, playmaker Gallardo and striker Fabbiani will give them more of a spine - but there is long way to go before they can challenge for the title. San Lorenzo, who I thought might be Argentina's best bet, are struggling away from home and now have goalkeeping problems.
Estudiantes look an ordinary side - ever since they sold teenage star Piatti to Spain Veron has had no one to play with, no quick striker to latch on to his long diagonal passes. And Lanus have a promising young team, top of the domestic championship table, but have yet to find their legs in the Libertadores, and after three games without a win face a real battle to qualify for the knock-out stage.
Some other contenders - Chivas Guadalajara of Mexico are dangerous at home, but look defensively loose. There is also a lack of pace at the back in Chile's Colo Colo, though they have won two good victories and can boast an excellent partnership between wonderfully talented Colombian playmaker Torres and ungainly but effective Argentine striker Barrios.
Nacional of Uruguay have started well and have an excellent youth policy. But do they have the strength in depth to go all the way?
Libertad of Paraguay are another club that are specialising in producing players. They are 100% after three games (the only team with such a record, though Boca could join them). For all their superb organisation, I would like to see Libertad have to chase a game before considering them title candidates.
Which leaves the Brazilians, who so far have accumulated six wins and two defeats - both suffered by Palmeiras, the one Brazilian club in trouble. This is ironic, since they are the ones in the best domestic form.
At international level, though, flaws have been exposed - veteran defender Edmilson's slowness on the turn, highly promising striker Keirrison's need to improve his contribution in the build up play, and an overall lack of emotional balance.
The other Brazilian teams are looking well set to qualify - Sao Paulo will really take some stopping, Gremio and Cruzeiro are strong, and Sport of Recife, who qualified by winning the Brazilian Cup, have surprised so far with two terrific wins.
So if the Brazilians have won the title just 13 times in Libertadores history, why are they looking dominant now?
Partly because the fact that the Brazilian Championship is now played on a league basis mean that the best clubs qualify. But more importantly, because it has become their main priority.
For many years it wasn't. A giant country and the continent's only Portuguese-speakers, Brazil can be very insular. Pele's Santos won the competition twice, but in the mid 60s decided they would rather travel the world playing lucrative friendlies. In 1966, 69 and 70 there was no Brazilian participation, in protest either at financial arrangements, or (in 66) at the fact that the tournament had been expanded to include two teams per country.
Times have changed. Now, with the TV money rolling in, there are compelling financial reasons to take part in the Libertadores. And once Brazil is in and taking it seriously, with a population as big as all the other South American nations combined, it is hardly surprising that the Brazilians teams are the ones to beat.
Comments on this piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) I think I've seen you refer to the 1924 Olympics as "the birth of the modern game" a couple of times in your column now, and was wondering if you could explain a bit more about this. What changed in the game around this time?
A) I see it as the moment when football stopped being another sport and started to become the global game. Firstly, in purely technical terms - for a number of reasons the game had really caught on in South America, where it had been re-interpreted by the locals, who had developed an artistic, balletic style very different from the muscular, straight-line running school of the English. Uruguay were unknowns when they turned up in Paris for the 1924 Olympics, and then they slaughtered all-comers. This new style of theirs was better on the eye than anything anyone had seen before - and effective as well. This set off a fever for the game.
In organisational terms, Uruguay's win was the moment when the World Cup came to life. The Olympics was for amateurs. England had professional football, and was still seen as setting the standards in the game. But these Uruguayans seemed to be even better than the English. How to find out? There had to be a tournament that was open to everyone, amateurs and professionals alike. And so the World Cup was born. Uruguay, who'd also won the 28 Olympics in Amsterdam, hosted it in 1930 - and the English, to the eternal shame of their narrow-minded administrators, declined the desperate invitations to participate.
Q) Naohiro Takahara, Japanese international had a spell with Boca Juniors although I think he only played a handful of games, what I want to know is how did this move come about? How well did he perform and what the supporters must have thought about. It's strange to see a Japanese player moving to Argentina.
A) A big part of Boca's success in recent years is their business-minded approach. They were quick to latch on to the realities of the global market, for example, and invest heavily in producing players with the aim of selling them to Europe and thus financing a competitive squad. I think they signed Takahara with more than eye on commercial possibilities - exposure to the Japanese market, etc, especially as they were heading to Japan to dispute the Inter-Continental Cup against the champions of Europe. Then-coach Bianchi, though, made sure that football considerations spoke louder than commercial - he left Takahara out of the squad.