Chivas make Libertadores final against the odds
Mexico's Chivas Guadalajara have endured a journey over time and space to reach the final of the Copa Libertadores.
First, because they are outsiders in South America's equivalent of the Champions League.
Mexico is in North America. The distance between Mexico City and Buenos Aires, for example, is further than that between London and Mumbai. Guadalajara and Porto Alegre, home city of final opponents Internacional of Brazil, are even further apart.
The Mexicans, then have clocked up plenty of air miles in the quest to become the first team from their country to win the Libertadores.
Chivas Guadalajara celebrate victory over Velez Sarsfield
There is another sense in which this has been a very long campaign. It began back in February 2009.
With some late drama, Chivas just managed to hold off Everton of Chile and make it out of the group phase. They were to face Brazil's Sao Paulo in the second round. But then swine flu struck, leaving the South American Federation (Conmebol) wallowing with a problem. Mexico was the epicentre of the disease.
Chivas were unable to stage their match at home. No alternative venue could be found, so Conmebol cancelled the match and decided that the tie would be played over one leg, to be held in Brazil.
Chivas and San Luis Potosi, another Mexican club in the same situation, pulled out in protest. There were angry words and talk of a complete rupture between Mexico and South American football.
A compromise was inevitable. The Mexicans have been invited to participate in the Libertadores since 1998. The relationship can be strained, but it is mutually beneficial.
Mexican clubs get to play in a high prestige and fiercely competitive tournament, while the Libertadores and its sponsors gain access to a market of over 100 million people.
So after the heat had died down, it was decided that Chivas and San Luis Potosi would feature in this year's tournament, entering the competition at the same stage that they had pulled out in 2009. The current campaign, then, is a continuation of last year's.
This may be seen as a privilege, but it also brought a handicap. Mexico assembled their World Cup squad earlier than most - a measure which inevitably weakened Chivas, forbidden by its statutes to field foreigners and a big supplier of players to the national team.
They had to get through the first two knockout rounds without five of their stars who were preparing for South Africa - keeper Luis Michel, defender Jonny Magallon and strikers Javier Hernandez, Alberto Medina and Adolfo Bautista.
Hernandez, of course, is now scoring his goals for Manchester United. The rest were back for the semi final against Universidad de Chile and will be available for this week's home leg and then the long trip down to Porto Alegre for the return match on 18 August.
But Chivas will not be making the longest trip of all. Even if thy beat Internacional they will not feature in the Arab Emirates this December in the World Club Cup. As outsiders, they cannot represent South America in the annual competition. Whatever happens over the two legs, that honour will belong to the Brazilians.
So far apart geographically, Chivas and Internacional are also poles apart philosophically. Chivas are representatives of Mexican nationalism. Inter, as the name suggests, are an open church.
Their region, the south of Brazil, is one of mass European immigration. Their big local rivals, Gremio, were originally restricted to Germans. Internacional were for everyone, regardless of origin.
But like Chivas, Inter's path to the final has hardly been conventional. They reached the semi-finals by eliminating reigning champions Estudiantes of Argentina - and promptly rewarded Uruguayan coach Jorge Fossati with the sack.
Under replacement Celso Roth the pattern has stayed the same. They have won all their home games in the campaign, but have yet to win away. Indeed, they were beaten on their travels in all three knockout rounds. But they scored once every time - and with aggregate scores level, that away goal was always the margin of victory.
But it won't be in the final. Different rules now apply. In the event of a tie after the two legs then extra-time will be played, regardless of away goals.
The advantage, though, is still with Internacional. That extra-time, if needed, will take place on their home ground. This is another part of the price paid by the Mexicans for their invitation to the Libertadores - they cannot stage the second leg of the final, which must take place on South American soil.
The biggest advantage, though, is that before a ball is kicked Internacional have scooped the prize. The World Club Cup is taken very seriously in these parts. As champions of the Libertadores or as runners up, Internacional can already dream of taking on Inter Milan in December.
Chelsea could benefit from Ramires' bursts into the penalty area
Comments on the piece in the space provded. 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've just seen that Hernanes has finalised a deal to sign for Lazio. Just wondering how you feel about this deal?
I know you and many other journalists have praised him on numerous occasions, and have tipped him for big things. But do you think this move is a comedown to all your optimism?
I was expecting him to move to a club like Barca or Juve, so to see him join Lazio is a big surprise. Do you think he is using Lazio as a stepping stone to a bigger club in Europe?
A) I think the move reflects the fact that he hasn't come on as much as hoped. I'm a big fan - he's a central midfielder who can do a bit of everything and strikes the ball well with both feet. But he doesn't seem to have made much progress in the last two years. He would have been in my World Cup squad, but he hardly made an unanswerable case for his inclusion.
Unlike the majority, I fear he might have stayed in Brazil too long. Sao Paulo have relied more on a strong aerial game than constructive midfield play, and perhaps this hasn't helped him - I want to see him boss a game from the centre, dictate all phases of possession, but for all his technique he seems lacking in ideas. There's still plenty of time - he's only 25 - so it will be interesting to see which way his career goes.
Q) Kaka paid glowing tribute to Chelsea new boy Ramires describing him as the best young central midfield player in the world. High praise indeed, do you agree and will he be a success in the Premier League?
A) I wouldn't go quite that far, but I have high hopes of him. One of the things that surprised me when I first moved to Brazil was the absence of midfielders with the lung power and technique to work the middle, burst beyond the strikers and score goals - a type of player which has been emblematic in English football. But in Brazil anyone with those characteristics was playing at full back.
The interesting thing about Ramires is that he's taken the reverse route. He did play a bit at full back, but was successfully converted into a goalscoring midfielder. He's worked on his finishing - he's still not the greatest, but Chelsea should be able to profit from his capacity to keep bursting into the box.