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Tim Vickery column

By Tim Vickery
South American football reporter

The competition that South America optimistically refers to as its Uefa Cup equivalent, the Copa Sudamericana, kicks off this week.

Its name translates, not very inspiringly, as the South American Cup - though its 34 contestants include two from Mexico and this year one from Honduras as well.

Unlike in Europe, South America’s Champions League and Uefa Cup equivalents are not played at the same time.

The 2007 Copa Sudamericana winners, Arsenal FC of Argentina
Argentines Arsenal FC beat Mexican side Club America in last year's final
In this part of the world the footballing calendar naturally divides the year in two; February to the end of June, and August to mid-December.

Most countries use this structure to stage two separate domestic championships per year, and this is also the way the international club competitions break down. The Copa Libertadores is crammed into the first half of the year, the South American Cup takes the second.

Some would argue that, as in Europe, they should take place simultaneously throughout the year, but there is sense in the status quo. There is only so much TV money to go round.

Held at the same time the two tournaments would essentially be competing against each other. Staging them separately has the advantage of not confusing the supporters, and also of ensuring all year round international action for the continent’s top clubs.

But although they each take up half the year, there is no such thing as equality of importance between South America’s two club competitions.

The Libertadores is by far the most prestigious. Held since 1960, it has the weight of tradition and all the kudos of being a genuine Champions League equivalent. Qualification is strictly on merit, and the competition has benefited enormously from the expansion from 24 clubs to 32 at the turn of the decade.

Previously only one of the four teams per group was eliminated, and so the action took ages to catch fire. Now two teams fall at this hurdle, and the level of play is intense from the first whistle. Two years ago Internacional of Brazil, world champions at the time, failed to make it out of the group stage.

In the first rounds the dominant principle is the need to keep travel costs down

Little of this applies to the South American Cup. For example, it has no group stage.

The competition came hurriedly to life in 2002. In the depths of the continent’s economic depression the tournament which had previously occupied the second half of the year lost its sponsorship and folded. The South American Cup began as a quick mend and make do replacement.

The format, then, is home and away knockout right from the start. And in the first rounds the dominant principle is the need to keep travel costs down; the Brazilians play amongst themselves, as do the Argentines.

All the others face teams from a neighbouring country. For example, of Paraguay’s two representatives, one travels north to meet a team from Bolivia, the other goes south to Uruguay, and so on.

In these first few weeks the teams are battling for a place in the last 16 - and it is here that the problems of credibility really begin.

Boca Juniors and River Plate are already there. Not only do the Buenos Aires giants receive an invitation to participate, they are also placed straight into the second round - privileges based on their popularity all over the continent.

That is by no means the extent of the gerrymandering.

In the Libertadores, Brazil and Argentina have more representatives that the other countries. But their fate is decided on merit; theoretically they could all be eliminated in the group phase, and there is no pre-organisation of the clashes in the knock-out rounds, which depend on results in the group games.

But the South American Cup has been set up in such a way that in the second round all eight ties are guaranteed to feature a team from either Brazil or Argentina.

Little wonder, then, that as it goes into its seventh season, the South American Cup lags so far behind the Libertadores in terms of credibility.


You can put your questions to Tim Vickery every week on the World Football Phone-in on BBC Radio 5 Live's Up All Night programme from 0230 to 0400 BST every Saturday. You can also download last week's World Football Phone-in Podcast.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Do you rate Fabio Aurelio? And do you know why he has never been called up to the Brazilian national team (especially considering the dearth of quality left-backs available to Brazil)? I watched him play last season for Liverpool and I thought he was absolutely terrific. I feel he embodies confidence when he is on the ball and knows exactly where his passes are going plus he isn't a bad tackler and has a pretty good free-kick.
Chris Kelesoglou

I rate him very highly - I think he’s probably the most complete left-back Brazil have produced over the last few years. He was one of their few success stories in the 2000 Olympics and looked set for a good international career, pushing Roberto Carlos hard before eventually replacing him.

He has been called up for the senior squad, only to have to drop out through injury. Unfortunately the injuries have been a recurring problem, otherwise I am sure he would have achieved even more than he has with Valencia and Liverpool.

A few years ago I was hearing favorable things about a young Brazilian player called Nilmar, and remember him making a handful of national team appearances. What has happened to his career since he went back to Brazil?
Tom Mansell

The new Bebeto! A sleek and classy striker, Nilmar was tempted home from Lyon by the money being thrown around by Corinthians in 2005, formed a promising duo with Carlos Tevez and there were voices calling for his inclusion in the 2006 World Cup squad, but then he had some serious knee problems.

He’s now fit again, looking sharp and scoring goals for Internacional of Porto Alegre, his first club. He’s still only 24, and while Inter don’t want to lose him in this transfer window, a return to Europe before too long is highly likely.


Got a question about South American football for Tim Vickery? Email him at vickerycolumn@hotmail.com




see also
Tim Vickery column
26 May 08 |  Football
Tim Vickery column
30 Jun 08 |  Football
Tim Vickery column
07 Jul 08 |  Football


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