Brazil feels hand of history upon it
From Roberto Carlos and Juan Sebastian Veron, through Roque Santa Cruz, Ronaldinho and Kaka, to Lionel Messi (with Argentina's Under-20s) and Sergio Aguero, to the likes of Neymar today, the biggest privilege South American football has given me is a chance to catch the early steps of players on the way to global stardom. It is like getting a sneak preview of the future.
But my area of action gives me another great, almost opposite pleasure - the opportunity to breathe the air of the game's history, to watch matches in settings that have, in the past, played host to the highest level of football the world had seen.
No true fan can fail to be awestruck by a visit to Montevideo, capital of Uruguay. After strolling along the main avenue, and cutting through a scenic park, you come to the concrete colossus of the Centenario stadium, hurriedly constructed for the first World Cup in 1930, and still going strong.
While I am not a great fan of River Plate's ground in Buenos Aires - the stands are too far from the pitch, you often seem to be watching the game from a strange angle and it is one of those places that seems permanently cold and blustery - I still love going there. It is a chance to pay homage to the venue where Alfredo Di Stefano honed the skills that would have such an influence on the game's global development.
I felt the hand of history this weekend, when making a rare trip to Sao Paulo. Fifteen years ago, when researching a TV programme, I came across a wonderful story about one of the all time greats of Brazilian football.
The top goalscorer of the 1938 World Cup, Leonidas de Silva was the country's first international superstar. He was also the original bad boy. A snappy dresser who loved his whiskey, he was a difficult team-mate, and a much more tricky opponent. Intelligent, quick, lithe and skilful, he was dubbed "the rubber man" and proved his athleticism by being one of the pioneers (though not the inventor, as is often claimed in Brazil) of the bicycle kick.
Vasco right back Fagner helped his side to beat Portuguesa 1-0. Photo: Getty
Exactly 70 years ago, he left his native Rio and went to Sao Paulo. He was only 28, but the general consensus was that he was all washed up. He had undergone surgery on his knee, and had even just spent a few months in jail, convicted of forging documents. When he was signed by Sao Paulo FC, a relatively new club at the time, the more established local rivals were highly sceptical. An expression was coined to sum up Leonidas - the best translation I can come up with is "expensive piece of junk".
It was not a term that was to have a long life. One of his first games was the big local derby against Palestra Italia - a club which soon afterwards adopted its current name, Palmeiras. Just before half time Leonidas met a cross with his trademark move. Radio commentator Geraldo Jose de Almeida could hardly control himself. "The expensive piece of junk has scored with a bicycle kick," he cried over and over again, each time with more wonder and excitement.
I was given a tape of his commentary back in 1997, and found it fascinating. As well as the emotion of the moment, there is the also the importance of the occasion. That goal ended any doubts that still surrounded Leonidas, and his presence over the next few years helped establish Sao Paulo FC as a top team. This in turn gave a push to the development of football in the city and in the region - which at the time was playing second fiddle to Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil's capital. Before long football in Sao Paulo could claim equal status, and Santos, the club from the port an hour down the road, could be considered the best team in the world.
The spirit of Leonidas was back in town on Saturday, when I went to see Portuguesa at home to Vasco da Gama of Rio. At best the city's fourth team, Portuguesa's stadium is pleasantly rickety, constructed in the mid-50s but seeming older. It was nowhere near full, with an attendance of less than 5,000. After winning promotion last year, this was Portuguesa's first home game of the Brazilian Championship, but their tiny support was comfortably outnumbered by the travelling contingent from Rio. And it was the away fans who had most to shout about - not just because their team won 1-0, but because the goal was one of those to be remembered for years to come.
The progress down the flank of Vasco right back Fagner appeared to have been stopped when he was tackled, but he was quickly on his feet, making space and sending in a cross. Its trajectory took it behind centre forward Alecsandro, who took off with his back to goal, Leonidas-style, swung a boot and connected with a bicycle kick that flew into the far top corner.
In all my years in the press box I cannot recall a goal getting me out of my seat quicker and with more urgency. It was not just the beauty of the strike. It was also the nudge being given to history. Alecsandro was jumping, spinning, stretching and scoring in footsteps left by giants.
I'm always happy to receive your questions on South American football - email me at email@example.com and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Do you think Universidad de Chile will be able to hang onto their star players or will Marcelo Diaz Charles Aranguiz and Angelo Henriquez be playing their club football in Europe this coming season? Claudio Murgas
I think financial realities will dictate that players will be sold. But remember that they have continued to do well after losing three key players in the January transfer window. I don't think anyone expected them to replace star striker Eduardo Vargas with such ease, especially as centre forward Gustavo Canales went as well. Junior Fernandes has done well, 17-year-old Henriquez has been a sensation and even if he goes, the Peruvian Raul Riudiaz looks full of goals.
Perhaps the loss of centre back Marcos Gonzalez has been felt more. But if he moves on (and I fear he will) then the one I think they might find hardest to replace is central midfielder Marcelo Diaz, who organises their play so well.