Mexico mounts multiple Copa challenge
One of the less orthodox after effects of swine flu is the headache it gives the administrators of South America's premier club competition.
But how could they stage the home leg of their second round ties? It was at the height of the swine flu epidemic, with Mexico at its epicentre.
The South American Federation unsuccessfully tried to find an alternate venue, gave up and announced that the fate of the Mexican clubs would be decided on a single match, the away leg.
Chivas and San Luis pulled out in protest, and Mexico - which is in North America and participates in the tournament on an invitation basis - broke off relations with South American football.
A Chile Everton fan wears a face mask in 2009 as his team take on Mexico's Chivas
It didn't last. There is too much to be gained from the current arrangement.
Mexico's clubs take part in a top class, traditional competition, while TV money for the South Americans is boosted by the exposure to the massive Mexican market.
A peace formula was soon found. Part of it was that Chivas and San Luis would be reinstated in this year's version of the Libertadores - at the stage where they pulled out in 2009.
So the group phase kicks off this week, but the Mexican pair don't have to go through it. They are already through to the second round.
This means that the group phase of the 2010 Libertadores will be the most competitive in the 51 versions of the competition. For many years, the group phase was a phoney war.
Twenty teams went in to it, just five were eliminated and the other 15 joined the holders in the knock out rounds. Then, a decade ago, the competition was expanded, with 32 teams chasing 16 slots.
This year, because of the automatic qualification of Chivas and San Luis, there are only 14 slots available - and coming second in the group will not guarantee one of them. Only the eight group winners and the six best runners up will make the cut.
The pressure is on right from the start.
With the two extra Mexicans, and also a brief qualifying round, a record 40 clubs are taking part in this year's Libertadores. The competition has come a long way since it kicked off in 1960 with just seven participants.
The early giants, who carved up the first four titles, were Penarol of Uruguay and Santos of Brazil. Their two countries, though, saw the Libertadores through very different perspectives.
For Uruguay it was a godsend . A population of only three million placed an inevitable limitation on the possibilities of domestic football. International club competition soon became a necessity - and with a pair of big clubs (Nacional as well as Penarol), the Uruguayans lobbied for the Libertadores to be expanded from one team per country to two.
Argentine team Estudiantes and their captain Juan Sebastian Veron celebrate winning the 2009 Copa
When they were successful in 1966, Brazil pulled out in protest. Giant and relatively isolated from its Spanish-speaking neighbours, Brazil could do without the Libertadores. Santos opted not to take part. They would rather travel the world playing lucrative friendlies. And in 1969 and 70, as well as 66, there was no Brazilian participation.
Times have changed - especially since Brazil conquered hyper-inflation in the mid 90s. Previously, the clubs could meet their commitments by paying late. Suddenly they were living in the real world. And over time, the penny dropped that the Libertadores, expanded and with increased TV money, was a much more interesting competition than Brazil's obsolete state championships - from both a financial and a footballing point of view.
The Libertadores is now the number one objective of Brazilian clubs. With motivation high, the currency strong and a longer national domestic league introduced in 2003, Brazil's representatives have become the teams to beat in the Libertadores. They have provided seven of the last 10 finalists, and last year supplied four of the last eight. But in each of the last three years, the title has eluded them.
This year's contingent looks like the biggest display of strength in depth that Brazil has ever sent to the Libertadores - spearheaded by Corinthians, desperate to record their first win in their centenary year.
If lack of maturity on the big occasion has been the problem in recent finals, it shouldn't apply to Corinthians. Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos are part of a squad rich in veterans, apparently hand picked to withstand the pressure of the campaign.
Where is the threat going to come from for them and their compatriots? Part of the charm of the competition is that you can never be entirely sure.
The Libertadores always has the potential to throw up a surprise.
Some trends can be identified, though. Uruguay has seven titles, but none since 1988. Paraguay has three (all Olimpia, who have not qualified), but local standards have suffered since Mexican clubs have been buying so many Paraguayan players.
Colombia has two titles, and threatened to become a force in mid-decade, but have since fallen badly backwards.
Ecuador has one title - the rising force of LDU in 2008. But they just failed to qualify this year. Chile has one title, but though there are slight signs of a revival, it is years since a Chilean club made a serious challenge.
Mexico has never won, though their clubs have put in some splendid performances since they were invited in 12 years ago. And this year they have four teams in the field, with Chivas and San Luis, as we have seen, already in the last 16.
But the obvious place to look for likely challengers is Argentina. Between 1963 and 79 there was always an Argentine club in the final, giving the Libertadores a special place in the country's footballing culture.
The country can boast 22 wins to Brazil's 13, with two in the last three years. Last year's win was emblematic. Estudiantes threw off their own poor start to deservedly win the trophy in a campaign where all their compatriots were eliminated early.
There is a fascinating aspect to the Argentine representation in 2010. In a year full of powerful Brazilian clubs, none of the traditional Argentine big five have qualified - only the third time this has ever happened.
Can the likes of little Banfield, current Argentine champions, do battle against the Brazilians? There is an excellent gauge of the two countries' strengths in the first week. On Wednesday Velez Sarsfield, probably the strongest of the Argentine sides, host Cruzeiro of Brazil, last year's beaten finalists.
It is a wonderful way to get the 51st Libertadores out of the blocks - especially as there is a chance that only one team from the group will reach the next round.
Comments on the 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 was wondering if you had any information on the condition of Salvador Cabanas, the Paraguayan striker who was shot in the head in Mexico City. Is he likely to recover?
I believe he was a shoe-in for a World Cup place, do Paraguay have anyone to replace him?
His recovery seems to be surprising the doctors. He even told his dad that he'll be playing in the World Cup, though that would seem to be pushing it too far.
He was Paraguay's top scorer in qualification, and after not getting on the pitch in the last World Cup, would have been in the team this time.
Even without him, though, Paraguay have some attacking options - Santa Cruz and Haedo Valdez, Benitez
and a choice of rangy, left footed forwards.
Eurocentric readers will probably be thinking of Benfica's Oscar Cardozo. Paraguayans, meanwhile, might have more faith in the very promising Pablo Velasquez of Libertad.
I have a question about striker Keirrison. Great at Palmeiras and on the radar again with his move to Fiorentina, but why do you think he has not shone at Benfica? Is it too early to doubt him? And do you think he will succeed in Italy?
Not the slightest surprise that he hasn't been an instant smash in Europe. This was an easy one to predict.
He left Brazil as a competent right footed finisher who couldn't do a great deal else.
And you only have to look at the unbelievably bad marking on the goal that Robinho scored for Santos this weekend to realise that Keirrison would be taking a step up that he might not have been ready for.
Another problem is that Benfica were scoring so freely without him, meaning that there were few opportunities for him to pick up what he most needs - first team playing time.
There is potential there. One of the factors that might determine his fate at Fiorentina is how successfully he's been working to widen his game over the last few months.