The prestige of the Club World Cup
One of my regrets is that I arrived in Brazil too late - by more than a decade - to catch the great Flamengo team of the early 80s.
Spearheaded by Zico, with a supporting cast including Junior, Leandro, Mozer and Adillio, they gave weekly recitals of top-class football which are still remembered fondly by those lucky enough to be there.
Their finest hour came 27 years ago, when they beat Liverpool 3-0 in Tokyo in the first of the annual clashes held in Japan between the champions of Europe and South America. For them it was a huge occasion, for Liverpool it was a bit of a giggle.
Some years ago I did a round-table debate on Brazilian TV with Raul Plassman, Flamengo's keeper at the time. He told me that they were all aware that Liverpool were not treating the game particularly seriously, but that it was hardly in the interests of the Flamengo players to divulge the fact.
I don't think this takes anything away from Flamengo's achievement as all you can do is beat the opposition in front of you. If they are not motivated by the prospect of facing the champions of South America, the problem is theirs.
That match has now grown into the FIFA Club World Cup, with all the continents represented. The Europeans take it a bit more seriously now - playing a game in Japan is no longer seen as a strange thing to do.
But there's a sense in which the European clubs are more concerned with increasing their 'brand awareness' among Asian consumers than with winning the title. This competition is nowhere near being seen as the absolute highlight of the club calendar, as it is in South America.
From the South American perspective, the fact that the old one-off match against the European champions has now gone increases its' prestige still further. But it carries a risk. Now there is no guaranteed crack at the winners of the Champions League. There is a semi-final to be negotiated first.
So far, in the three versions of this competition, the South American side has got through to the final. But it has never been easy. There has been a sequence of narrow, nervy victories and there will come a year when the champions of the Copa Libertadores fail to make it through to the final - and there is a distinct possibility that this could be the year.
LDU, or Liga of Quito, were worthy winners of the 2008 Libertadores. But the first Ecuadorian side to win the trophy are by no means the most distinguished champions in the competition's 49 year history. The facts speak for themselves; of the eight games in the knockout rounds they won just two. They won the quarter-final and the final on penalties, and got through the semi-final on away goals. And since then they have lost two key players.
If the lung power of Paraguayan midfielder Enrique Vera was fundamental to the team, Joffre Guerron was irreplaceable. He was a one-man right flank, undressing defence after defence with his pace and power. But he is now in Spain with Getafe and Vera is in Mexico with America. LDU are not the same side without them and in a South American cup match in September they lost 4-0 to Boca Juniors' reserves.
They are also up against dangerous and attractive semi-final opposition on Wednesday when they take on Pachuca of Mexico, the champions of the Concacaf region. Many fans around the world are unaware of the strength of the domestic Mexican game.
Since 1998 Mexican clubs have been invited to take part in South America's Copa Libertadores. They have met teams from Ecuador on 12 occasions. The breakdown is as follows - eight wins for the Mexicans, four draws and zero wins for Ecuador - though this year LDU did get eliminate America of Mexico on away goals after two draws.
Part of the strength of the Mexican game is that the league is rich enough to buy in some good players from South America. The Pachuca side provides ample evidence; their pretty passing football has an Argentine flavour, hardly surprising as Cristian Gimenez, hero of Saturday's 4-2 win over Al-Alhy, was once seen as a genuine wonderkid at Boca Juniors.
Damian Alvarez could not quite make the grade at River Plate but has flashes of talent and Bruno Marioni is a left-footed striker of pedigree. In addition to the Argentine contingent, Julio 'Robocop' Manzur is a typically rugged Paraguayan centre-back. Vastly experienced keeper and team captain Miguel Calero has 50 caps for Colombia. And on the bench is rangy Brazilian striker Cristian.
Pachuca start Wednesday's semi-final as favourites. And whether they or LDU make it through, there will be a South American presence in Sunday's final of the Club World Cup.
Please send your comments on this week's piece using the space provided below. Any 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;
My question is with regards to a certain Kerlon Moura Souza (Kerlon). I know he's at Cheivo Verona, but he's only made one appearance so far this season. Has he not adapted to the Italian game or has he picked up injuries since moving?
He was picking up injuries long before he moved to Chievo. Kerlon was the star of the show in the 2005 South American Under-17s. He was top scorer and top man in a Brazil side that included the likes of Anderson, Marcelo, Denilson and Renato Augusto. Then came an ankle injury and two serious knee injuries and he left Cruzeiro to join Chievo without having come close to establishing himself as a senior first team player.
The goals he was banging in at Under-17 level were coming in all shapes and sizes - free kicks, combination play, shots from range, outpacing the defence. It all got overshadowed, though, by his own invention, the remarkable 'seal dribble,' where he lifts the ball up to his forehead and runs while balancing it there. It's a fantastic thing, but it might have proved counter-productive - it's something that needs to be used sparingly, and at the right moment - for example on the edge of the area, rather than for showboating on the touchline.
He's 21 next month. Here's hoping it's not too late for him to regain the momentum of 2005.
My family are from the Bahia region of Brazil. I went to visit them recently and when I was there I went to watch Vitória and a player called Marquinhos had a great game. His dribbling was outstanding, drifting in from the right wing he was a joy to watch. Could you tell me a little bit about him? How old is he? From the game i saw he looks like a flair player.
A good piece of scouting! Marquinhos was one of the real revelations of this year's Brazilian Championship - jitterbug figure, lithe dribbling skills and he scored eight goals in the competition. Whenever I saw him he was cutting across on the diagonal from the left - terrific if he could pick up possession on his right foot, not so good on the left.
Your family will have to get by without him now, because he's moving south to Sao Paulo to join Palmeiras. He's 19, and should be one to look out for next month in the South American Under-20s.