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Argentina's battle for South American supremacy

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Tim Vickery | 10:56 UK time, Monday, 14 May 2012

With his dramatic title-winning goal for Manchester City, Sergio Aguero paid off a fair chunk of his reported £38m transfer fee - some of which filtered down from Atletico Madrid to Independiente in Argentina, the club which produced him.

Producing such a magnificent striker has already done wonders for Independiente's finances. The money they received for selling him to Spain was used to rebuild their entire stadium, the Estadio Libertadores de America - named after South America's equivalent of the Champions League, which they have won a record seven times.

The Copa Libertadores is not only close to the heart of Independiente, it is a huge deal in Argentina nationally.

Supporters in the country have made up special songs about the Libertadores, and the atmosphere in a big Buenos Aires ground during one of those matches is something every fan should experience.

Boca Juniors

Juan Roman Riquelme's (10) Boca Juniors beat Chile's Union Espanola to reach this year's Libertadores quarter-finals. Photo: Getty

The competition was first played in 1960 - and from 1963 until 1979 there was always a club from Argentina in the final. The country can still boast more wins than anyone else (22, compared to 15 from Brazil, eight from Uruguay and seven from the rest of the continent combined).

However, that domination has started to look very shaky recently.

Over the past 15 years, for example, only two Argentine clubs have reached the final - Estudiantes on one occasion and Boca Juniors on several. In that same time, Brazil has produced 10 different finalists.

Argentina's domination was surely helped by the undeniable fact that, in the past, Brazilian clubs gave the competition a lower priority. In 1966, for example, there was no Brazilian participation, a protest against the expansion from one team per country to two, and there were also boycotts on financial grounds in 1969 and 1970.

Nowadays, though, the competition is a top priority in Brazil as well. And bearing in mind the huge size of the country and the financial gap which has opened up between its clubs and the rest of the continent, it is only to be expected that Brazil has become the leading force in the Libertadores.

Though Santos won the title, last year was not a good one for the Brazilians, who had problems dealing with different tactical approaches. This year, though, normal service has been resumed.

The quarter-finals kick off this week, and Brazil provides four of the last eight, just as it did in 2009 and 2010.

But the decline of Argentine clubs is not only relative to Brazil - performance has also plummeted against everyone else.

River Plate's relegation is symptomatic of the financial and administrative problems faced by even the biggest clubs in the country. For the past three years (and in four of the last five) Argentina has only provided one of the Libertadores quarter-finalists - a bleak statistic given the country's record of success in the competition.

This year, though, there are two, and the pair are the best Argentine football has to offer.
There is Boca Juniors, with all their tradition, back in the competition after a two year absence, and Velez Sarsfield, perhaps the best run club in the country, who have made huge strides in recent years and were unlucky to be knocked out in last year's semi-final.

Both Boca and Velez are more solid and functional than inspirational - a point made all too emphatically by the dreary 0-0 draw they fought out on Sunday in the domestic championship.

This week, though, they are on the same side, both taking on Brazilian opposition in a veritable battle for the soul of the Libertadores. Velez host Santos in Thursday's home leg, while Boca are at home to Fluminense.

As soon as coach Julio Cesar Falcioni took over at the start of last year, Boca were guaranteed to be interesting. Falcioni does not have the habit of picking an old fashioned number 10, and at Boca Juan Roman Riquelme is king.

At first, the coach struggled to accommodate Riquelme plus two strikers and still retain defensive consistency. Things improved in the middle of the year when lumbering centre forward Martin Palermo retired.

Falcioni could then operate with two mobile strikers, and seek to bring one of them behind the line of the ball when possession was lost. He built a solid side, one permanently seeking to defend itself against the opposing counter-attack, and was rewarded with an excellent defensive record as Boca won the last domestic title.

But it has not all been plain sailing.

Dealing with Riquelme is seldom easy, and he was said to be especially unhappy with the quality of the team's play in their Libertadores debut, a dire 0-0 draw against Zamora of Venezuela. Rumours abounded that Falcioni had resigned.

Since then relations have been patched up. Boca have won their last six matches in the competition and last week Riquelme was at his elegant and incisive best against Union Espanola of Chile.

Then, as this week, Uruguayan striker Santiago Silva was absent injured - but that might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The Fluminense centre-backs would hope to deal with him - but Brazilian clubs can struggle against fast strikers down the flanks, exploiting the space left behind the attacking full backs, and it is here that Dario Cvitanich and Pablo Mouche will look to shine.

Boca would be ill-advised to go chasing the game because their defensive record is based on collective solidity. Should they over-commit, their lack of pace at the back will be exposed.

And much the same applies to Velez Sarsfield, whose priority against Santos must surely be to deny space to Neymar. Right-sided midfielder Augusto Fernandez has a big role to play helping out his defence, while at the other end Velez will hope that Juan Manuel Martinez, full of strong running and change-of-pace dribbling, can get behind the Santos right-back.

Neither Argentine side would be distraught to be held to a goalless draw. With the away goals rule in operation, there is a lot to be said for the home side in the first leg keeping a clean sheet - just ask Chelsea.

Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.

From last week's postbag:

Q) I was just wondering if you could shed some light on Ganso's development? I was just curious due to the fact that a couple of years ago it was always Santos's stars Neymar and Ganso who were wanted by Europe's elite, but now all you hear about and see in the media is Neymar. Is he currently injured or just not playing maybe?
Shahib Uddin

A) Ganso was injured for a while, but he is playing well since his return. It is hard not to be overshadowed by Neymar, whose progress has been exceptional. Ganso, though, has bags of talent - a real, old fashioned, elegant number 10 with the vision to see the pass and the technique to play it.
I am a bit concerned, though, by the amount of premature praise he received from the Brazilian media - which is always difficult to deal with, especially at such a young age. Neymar seems to have dealt with all that. Ganso still gives some worrying signs. Last week, for example, he complained the reason for his disappointing performances with the national team were because he had not been given enough freedom. It is inevitable at this stage of his career, but his decision-making needs improvement. Too many times he is caught in possession in danger zones.

Q) How would you sum up Venezuela's footballing talents (on the whole and at a youth level)?
Michael Aridy

A) Their progress over the past two decades has been nothing short of amazing, but their domestic football has suffered from the process. Now young Venezuelans are on the radar, and being picked up by clubs in Europe and South America. The country invested heavily in stadiums for the 2007 Copa America and expanded the first division, and suddenly the quality has plummeted because of the exodus abroad. This year, for the third successive time, no Venezuelan club made it out of the group stages in the Libertadores. None of them won a game and Zamora could not even score a goal. It is a classic example of the difficulty of launching a league in today's globalised game.


  • Comment number 1.

    Another world class blog!

  • Comment number 2.

    I've always thought it's odd how some South American countries can produce such great players with a relatively weak club structure. I see both Ronaldo (the fat one) and the current Brazilian national team manager said Neymar needs to transfer to a big European club to realise his potential.

  • Comment number 3.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Tim,

    I think you will see Argentinian teams become strong again in the competition in the next few years, they cannot compete with Brasil financialy, but River will be back in the next couple of years, and along with Boca, Velez, and a rejuvinated Newells under Martino, I can see these teams competing in the Libertadores.

    Aguero's transfer fee may well off given Independiente the funds for the new stadium, but it is only half built, I have been very dissapointed with the lack of progress, when it finally is finished it will be great, and maybe then the glory days maybe come back for "el rey de copas".

  • Comment number 5.

    Hello Tim great blog as always!!!

    What are your thoughts on Lucas Moura, he looks like a great prospect but do you think he is ready to play in europe?

  • Comment number 6.

    It's all down to money, isn't it?

    Brazil's economy has accelerated away from the rest of South America (for all that the standard of living is arguably higher in Chile and Uruguay) and so nowadays the likes of Ronaldinho, Ganso, Neymar, Elano, Fred et al can earn salaries high enough to stay at home in Brazil rather than move to Europe.

    And those salaries are now high enough that it appears that the likes of Diego Forlan and Diego Lugano and Clarence Seedorf might now play out their final years in Brazil, where previously they would have dropped down the leagues in Europe or possibly go to the Middle East or USA for a last payday.

    That in itself is fascinating, because if I have understood correctly that means an even larger number of matches than in Europe. You'd think that Forlan would try to pace himself so that he can get to World Cup 2014, by hopefully being a player who is rotated in Europe and as such would only play 30 matches per season, but if he goes to Belo Horizonte he'll be signing on for more than twice as many matches, and as the star of the team.

    I am far from convinced that that is a wise move.

  • Comment number 7.

    A brilliant blog- consistently the best on BBC Sport-Football. Thank you for another informative and fascinating article, Tim.

  • Comment number 8.

    Great blog, always interesting to keep up with south american football. I have a question for Tim or for anyone that can help.... Is there a place to buy south american football tops, more specifically Sportivo Italiano who play in the Argentine 3rd league? Thanks

  • Comment number 9.

    Great blog, I have always wondered why Requelme was not (and is still not) in the Argentine national team or squad during the 2010 world cup. If older players are still given the opportunity, why not him. He probably will have delivered much better than Veron (or be his replacement instead of Tevez). Maradona really lost a golden opprtunity.

  • Comment number 10.

    The Tenth Beetle (#3),

    My understanding is that Neymar will probably stay in Brazil until after the World Cup in 2014 and then move to Europe.
    Tim, is that correct and do you think that is a wise thing? (while early moves can be bad, my worry is if he stays in Brazil too long he may have difficulty adapting to the different styles in Europe where he will have less time and space)

  • Comment number 11.

    @ 9: Riquelme has always been worth a place in the Argentine squad, if not necessarily in the 1st team, but with the size of Maradona's ego there was no room for another large one as well in 2010.
    @ 10: It's a key question, but given his youth Neymar will still be a very young star with huge potential even in 2014. And a lot can happen - in the world and especially in football, in those 2 years. The key at the moment is that he's enjoying his football and is maturing at an impressive rate, but if he ever feels it's all getting just a bit too easy I am sure he will look to Europe for a new challenge.
    Tim, why do you think several teams that were successful in last year's Libertadores have flopped (notably Peñarol) or not even qualified this time round (Once Caldas)? Is it because they lost key players to the European market?

  • Comment number 12.

    @10 i have also heard the same things about neymar. apparently he has an agreement with barcelona for a move in 2014. he is only 20 years old so he will be 22 definitely not to old to adapt

  • Comment number 13.

    Lucas Moura is a very fast and skillful player with a surprising speed, whether he may or may not do well in Europe will depend on the league that he be transferred, perhaps to do well in the Italian league and Spanish, now on to the premiere league he did not have physical strength and would need two or three seasons to suit a player like him would be to compare Theo Walcot's arsenal, it plays the same way and look like physically.

  • Comment number 14.

    Paying compliments to your blog has become so routine (deservedly, lest I be misunderstood) that it almost goes without saying now.

    I get teary-eyes every time someone mentions Riquelme. On the list of truly gifted players to not have fulfilled their potential (Recoba, Guti, Kaka, Le Tissier) no one comes close to him. I do not care what anyone else says. He is the best creative midfielder I have ever seen, which automatically makes him the best player I've ever seen.

  • Comment number 15.

    2.At 10:09 15th May 2012, Captain Hindsight wrote

    I know Ronaldo's put on some weight, but at least show him enough respect that for most of his career he was built like the incredible hulk

  • Comment number 16.

    @9: the answer may also lie in Tim's comment; "dealing with Riquelme is never easy..." I don't know much about what goes on behind the scenes, but Riquelme does sometimes give the impression that he's sulking when things are not going his way.

    On a separate issue, love the blog, Tim - the highlight of mondays. Any idea why the BBC made us wait till Tuesday for it this week?

  • Comment number 17.

    I couldn't believe the turnaround in last weeks Copa Libertadores. Deportivo Quito were ripped open at will and in the end it was lucky it was only 6-0. Needing only to protect a 4-1 lead from the first leg Deportivo totally capitulated. In the end the only saving grace was that they didn't get the biggest hammering of the round as Santos and an imperious Neymar leathered poor Bolivar 8-0 (9-2 aggregate).

    I have been in Quito for about 3 months and not really been effected greatly by the altitude but to be fair I have not been running about that much.

    It does seem to be a definite advantage for the home teams in the Copa Libertadores given the difference in altitude between the Andean countries and Brazil/Argentina/Chile.

    I think this is also reflected in the CONMEBAL World Cup qualifiers where Bolivia enjoy favourable results in LaPaz (although they always seem to raise their game against Argentina).

    Personally I think it will be an all Brazilian final but its a pity the Copa Libertadores doesn't follow the Champions League format and have a one off game final.

    Especially if the final was in Quito.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    Fantastic blog as always Tim. As a fellow Brit living here in South America it's extremely interesting to hear your views.
    I have been living in Buenos Aires for a few months now and have completely fallen in love with the football culture. I am lucky enough to live with a huge Boca Juniors fan and have been to several games including the group match against Fluminense earlier this year and it was an almighty spectacle, with fireworks galore, both on and off the field. It is by far and away the most important competition for people here. The history and tradition of La Copa is fascinating.
    Having learned a lot about the way in which the clubs are run and managed it doesn't surprise me that the Argentine sides have struggled these last few years. The River Plate situation speaks volumes. I have heard all sorts of enlightening stories including that of Aguero and the money Independiente received for him and how it has been spent or not as the case may be. I think the Brazilian teams will dominate over the next few years especially as their economy continues to grow.
    However, as a new fan of Boca I am hoping that 'Roman' will continue to shine in this years tournament and help Boca and Argentine football back to the top!

  • Comment number 20.

    kngjrdn (#9),

    because Riquelme decided that he didn't want to play for the NT anymore. After the last WC, if I remember correctly, he reverted his decision and implied that if he's called again he will play but he was not called. He had some injury issues 1 year ago but the last months have been a total return to form. I don't know if he still has a place on our NT, but as a Boca Juniros fan, I would love to see him there again (but it's important to consider that he can't play on any formation or team style, if you want Riquelme you need to make a team for him.. and having also the best player in the wolrld (obviously Messi) it's hard to do that for Roman).

  • Comment number 21.

    by the way.. this is the first time I read this blog and it was a fantastic surprise. Good work Tim!

  • Comment number 22.

    21 - Glad you could join us - there's nearly 12 years of this stuff on the site if you have the time and inclination to catch up!

    18 - I don't think a European-style one off final is really viable at the moment - South America is so huge, and air travel is beyond the reach of a large proportion of fans.

  • Comment number 23.

    11 - tha lack of consistentemcy in South American football is totally normal. There's much less continuity than in Europe, with teams changing as players anre sold (and now in Brazil as they are brought back as well), the turnover in coaches can be breathtakingly fast as well.

  • Comment number 24.

    I think Santos and Fluminense will prevail. The Libertadores has become a Brazilian thing. I'm not happy.

  • Comment number 25.

    Is it not a case of Argentina being affected more than any of the other big players by the exodus to Europe of it's best players in larger numbers and at an earlier age?

    I am sure I read somewhere (quite possibly one of your blogs Tim) that their acadamies almost operate or at least used to, with this in mind. In particular, in the past with England & Northern Italy in mind due to similarities in climate and culture respectively.

  • Comment number 26.

    With all due respect, Riquelme is good, but not that good.
    He is not the quickest and gets caught in possesion many times. If he comes up against a good holding midfielder then he is ineffective. I remember the 2007 Copa America final, Bra vs Arg. Brazil knew how to look after him and stifled his creativity. Brazil won 3-0 playing good attacking football themselves..
    More worrying is how Mano is degrading the Brazil national team at the moment. After Dunga he has started from scratch and is quite ineffective as a manager. He ignores excellent players like Diego Ribas, Kaka, Ramires, Melo and others i can mention, players who play in the toughest Euro leagues in the world and have experience of playing against the best players in the world. This will be very imortant come the world cup. The Brazilian league players are not very good, they cannot win the world cup with them.

  • Comment number 27.

    I cant profess to be a major football fan, and have grown increasingly disenchanted and bored of the traditional navel gazing of the English media and over-hyped Premiership.

    You manage to give a great flavour of what football is really like in the world, if we take time to widen our scope and read about it - congrats Tim, keep it up please.

  • Comment number 28.

    Supreme article, Tim. Tho I believe this competition has been a top priority in Brazil since long, long time ago. I'm a Velez fan; lucked out to see them lift the Libertadores cup in 1994: by far our greatest accomplishment ever. I think it's going to be pretty tough against Santos this time. ARG footie has been on the wane, I must admit. I'm of the opinion that highly talented players shouldn't head for Europe as early as they usually do and stay some other couple of years. Not going to happen tho.

  • Comment number 29.

    Great blog, I have always wondered why Requelme was not (and is still not) in the Argentine national team or squad during the 2010 world cup. If older players are still given the opportunity, why not him. He probably will have delivered much better than Veron (or be his replacement instead of Tevez). Maradona really lost a golden opprtunity.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]


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