Uruguay, a Nacional question
When small clubs are winning league titles it's often not a good sign. Normally it indicates that standards have gone down.
Uruguay is an excellent example. Just like its national team, Uruguay's club football has a wonderful tradition. When the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League equivalent, got underway in 1960, Penarol were the first winners - and the second, and in 1966 they beat Real Madrid home and away to be crowned world club champions (for the second time - they overcame Benfica five years earlier).
Penarol's great Montevideo rivals Nacional were not far behind. Though they had to wait until 1971 for their first title, it was the fourth time they had reached the final. In the first 12 years of the Libertadores there were only two occasions when the final featured neither Penarol nor Nacional.
The timing is interesting, because it coincides with a striking development in domestic Uruguayan football.
Penarol and Nacional had dominated the local league title. From the start of the professional era in 1932 until 1986 the Montevideo giants had won the championship on all but two occasions. Suddenly the monopoly came to an end. In 1987 the title went to Defensor, followed by Danubio the next year, Progreso in '89, Bella Vista in '90 and Defensor again in '91.
What had changed? The global market had opened up. With a population of just three million, it was all but impossible for Penarol and Nacional to hold on to their best players - and it became more difficult to snap up the best from the smaller clubs, who were now more likely to head straight for Europe.
The Uruguayan Under-20 team are currently showing some promise in the South American Championships. But they will not be coming to the rescue. A couple are already in Europe. Others will surely join them.
So one of the strategies that the big clubs are employing is to bring back veterans whose time in Europe is now up.
The current Penarol side features Pablo Cavallero, Argentina's goalkeeper in the 2002 World Cup, left -footed defender Dario Rodriguez, who scored a cracker for Uruguay against Denmark in that tournament and other repatriated over-30s such as Richard Nunez and Antonio Pacheco.
And last week a team of such experience made a series of schoolboy errors to make it unlikely that Penarol will have a long life in this year's 50th version of the Libertadores.
To get through to the group phase Penarol have to make it through a brief qualifying round. In the first leg they were hammered 4-0 by Medellin of Colombia - and all four goals came from elementary defensive errors at set-pieces. Two resulted from poor individual marking at corners, one from not pushing out after a corner was cleared and the other from not placing enough men in a defensive wall. And now they need a miracle in Tuesday's second leg if their fans are not to spend another year lamenting their decline - a process that first became apparent 20 years ago when they were beaten to the domestic title by some much smaller rivals.
What makes this all the harder to take is the fact that as a general rule South American football culture can be crueller to the small clubs than is the case in England. There is little of the feeling that the soul of the game is to be found in the lower divisions.
The English example is rare - an indication of the force with which football grabbed the country's industrial towns, but also the relic of anachronistic Victorian-era regulations. Until 1961 players in England not only had no freedom of contract, their earnings were also limited by a maximum wage. So Tom Finney stayed with Preston North End rather than joining Manchester United. And for decades Preston, and clubs like them, were able to punch above their weight while United punched below theirs.
The consequence is that English football has remarkable depth, with so many well-supported clubs. But it can also be a culture prone to mediocrity, tending to the belief that the 'real' football experience is a small town club playing sub-standard stuff on mud-heap pitches.
Almost 15 years of exposure to South American football have led me to be suspicious of this perspective. It is clear to me that football is the game of the big city, and its essence is not be found in mediocrity, but in the quest for greatness. The soul of the game might be hard to find these days in the giant stadium of the metropolis. But it is there in the peripheries of the big city, where poor kids sharpen their skills in the hope of achieving excellence - a word that used to apply to Penarol, and which they will need to dredge up from somewhere on Tuesday night if they are to play a part in the 50th version of the competition they helped establish.
Comments on this week's piece in the space below. 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:
Recently I was playing on my Fifa 09 game and noticed a talented young Argentinian player by the name of Falcao. I heard that during the summer he was linked to a host of clubs including Manchester United and Real Madrid. I was wondering how his development is going and what chance does he have of breaking into the Argentine national team?
None whatsoever, because he's Colombian, and already an international with them. Radamel Falcao Garcia, son of a defender, named after a midfielder and he's turned out to be a centre forward. River Plate unearthed him early - he's come up the ranks with them.
He seems to have it all - he's good in the air, sleek on the ground, cuts in well on the diagonal - a striker of terrific potential. But the time for truth is fast approaching. He's been a bit injury prone and has struggled to really get a sequence of games behind him. He's 23 next week, and I think this is a big year for him - can he be the leader of the River Plate attack in their Copa Libertadores campaign? Is he going to deliver week in week out? He still needs to make the step from promise to reality. But I think that long term he has the attributes to deserve attention from the European giants.
In recent years, there seems to have been a decline in the quality and number of the traditional attacking full-backs in South America. Are there any reasons why this is the case?
I see this as more of a specifically Brazilian thing than a South American, with the odd exception (such as Ecuador's De la Cruz, who gave them great service). I remember former-Argentina coach Jose Pekerman saying that the tradition of attacking full-backs was the thing that he most envied in Brazilian football - Argentina may have had Sorin, but the attacking full-back is not really their speciality - Heinze has even been playing there, though Maradona says that in his reign he'll feature at centre-back.
I'm not sure I completely agree that the quality has declined - a decade ago Brazil had no reserve for Cafu, now they are spoilt for choice at right-back. And if they are a little light at left-back, then Marcelo and Fabio are options for the long-term.
A complication, perhaps, is his early move to Europe - where the full-back position is interpreted differently, with much more emphasis on defence. I remember when Silvinho first came over to Arsenal, and many local pundits commented that he looked more like a wide midfielder - back in Brazil he was seen as one of the more defensively minded full-backs. Inter Milan played Roberto Carlos in midfield when he first joined them.
That's why I think the situation with Fabio and Rafael at United is so interesting. I imagine that United choose to get them over so early (before they had played a senior game for Fluminense) in order to work on the defensive side of their game. The more fascinating of the two is Fabio, who for Brazil's under-17s was playing all from left-back rather than at left-back, popping up everywhere and scoring rivers of goals. Will trying to make him more tactically disciplined add to his game, or will it take away from what he does best?