The Copa Libertadores group stage kicks off this week, beginning what is regarded (at least by south Americans) as one of the most brutal professional tournaments in the world. Teams have to play in the heat of Salvador, Brazil, in the heights of La Paz and Cuzco, in the humidity of the Amazon, or they may have to make overnight trips to Mexico. Many world-famous players showed their worth for the first time in this tournament. Winning it is the highest glory to which South American teams aspire. But there’s another tournament in South American football that, despite being regarded as “worse” by many people, is still a very prestigious tournament. I’m talking about the Copa Sudamericana.
In Europe, the Europa League and the Champions League are the two biggest tournaments, with the Champions League being the more prestigious one by far. In South America the situation is similar, but the two south american tournaments are not completely analogous to the European international tournaments. Aside from differences in funding, world reknown, sponsorship, and the undeniable fact that the European tournaments carry much more prestige than the South American ones, there are other, more fundamental differences.
The largest difference is the timing. In Europe, the tournaments span the entire season, with the champions league final being usually the last competitive professional match of the year before the off season. In the CONMEBOL, each of the two tournaments takes only half a season, much like most national tournaments are split in two parts – one before the mid season transfer window and one after. The last Copa Sudamericana spanned from August to December of 2014. The second leg of the final was played December 10th. River Plate, the winning team, played 8 games to win the cup, while the finalist, Atletico Nacional de Medellin, played 12.
The reason why this first tournament is so short is because there is no group stage – it’s all knockout rounds. This tournament is widely regarded to be “inferior” to the Copa Libertadores, in part because of how short it is. It started officially in 2002 after several other tournaments – the Copa Mercosur and the Copa Conmebol most notably – were merged. Thus, it has a much shorter history than the Copa Libertadores, too. When a team wins the cup, fans of the rival team will likely tease, saying the tournament “doesn’t really count.” It is clear that, in the mind of most if not all south american soccer fans, the Copa Libertadores is the highest aspiration. But this cup matters, too.
The Copa Libertadores is still the most important, most prestigious, and most exciting tournament in South American club football. Only 22 teams have won it, and if you ask a fan of any of the other teams, they’ll say it is their dream to see their team lifting the trophy. It began in the 1960s and has gone from a small, 7 team tournament that spans little over two months, to a 36 team tournament that spans half a season. It has been the stage for many legendary players to show their worth, and lately, it has been a recruiting ground for the much richer European teams to get their players.
The current Copa Libertadores began February 3rd and will end August 5th. By then, the two finalists will have played either 14 or 16 games, depending on whether or not they had to go through a qualifying playoff before entering the group stage. Teams will play every every week for the next 6 weeks to determine who gets out of the group stage. Then they will have a one week recess and from there, they will go back to playing every week until they are eliminated or they win the tournament. This stands in stark contrast with the Champions League, where teams play every two weeks, and there is a two month recess at the end of the group stage. Thus, winning each of those two tournaments has a merit of its own – in Europe, it’s the most skillful team that wins, but in South America, winning requires endurance as well. Teams that are lackluster technically have been known to defeat other teams because of differences in endurance.