This is a column I never thought I’d write, because it involves talking about CONMEBOL having made a decision I agree with. In fact, it involves the governing body of football in South America taking a decision I’ve been hoping for for quite some time — evidently, someone in the offices in Asunción listens to Hand Of Pod.
The decision in question was announced yesterday, and consists of a major change to the club football calendar in South America from next year onward. The Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s second tier cup competition, will begin a couple of months earlier, in June instead of August, but the main change is that the Copa Libertadores — the top tier contest whose winner gets to call itself the champion of South America — will no longer be played in the first half of the year, but will be a whole season long, running from February to November.
Such a change can only be a good thing for the quality both of the Libertadores and of domestic leagues across the continent. As CONMEBOL’s own press release puts it, “For a long time clubs have had to choose between their domestic championship and the continental cups, and that has affected the quality of both tournaments.” In truth it’s probably less problematic where the Sudamericana is concened — considering it’s a straight knockout in which the last 16 is reached pretty quickly, it doesn’t create anywhere near as much fixture congestion — but any effort to give teams a chance for more frequent midweek breathers must be welcomed.
The Copa Libertadores started as a much smaller tournament — the inaugural edition in 1960 (when it was called the Copa de Campeones de América) featured just seven teams — but has grown significantly since, especially in the current century. Today it’s played in a format that will be familiar to viewers of Europe’s Champions League: eight groups of four teams each, from which the group winners and runners-up advance to the last 16, at which point ties are played in a straight knockout over two legs. The most notable differences are the fact that the final of the Libertadores is played over two legs, and the time taken to complete the competition.
A team entering at the group stage (i.e. without needing to play the preliminary qualifying rounds) and reaching the final will play fourteen matches in five months. A team doing the same in the Champions League will play thirteen matches in eight months. Oh! and Europe is a far smaller continent geographically than South America (plus Mexico). European clubs don’t have to contend with such vast travel, or with the very different climatic conditions across South America, which of course annually require clubs from near sea level to travel up to the heights of La Paz or Quito.
All of that has a deleterious effect on training and, most obviously, player fitness, as so many midweek games are crammed in between domestic league commitments. The CONMEBOL line about teams having to choose between one or the other is illustrated perfectly by the fact that right here in Argentina, during the whole “short championship” era (from 1992 until 2014) not a single team managed to win both the Torneo Clausura/Final and the Libertadores in the same year — and that in an era when the strongest teams in Argentina were frequently the strongest in the continent.
Giving clubs more preparation time and more midweek rests should lead to more stability, a higher standard of play, fitter players and, through all that, increased interest from sponsors and TV companies — because let’s face it, even those of us who find a lot of trappings of the super-rich clubs in Europe rather distasteful can face up to the fact that South American football doesn’t pull in enough cash.
Two aspects that are not as laudable are CONMEBOL president Alejandro Domínguez’s reported preference for a one-off final in a pre-announced stadium (the two-legged final, which seem to be a good way of ensuring that the better team overall secures the trophy, is preferable), and suggestions that some big clubs — such as River Plate and Boca Juniors — may get invited on an annual basis regardless of their previous year’s performance. That smacks of when the Copa Sudamericana did the same thing, making it a hard competition to take seriously as a spectator — it’s improved immensely since it stopped inviting River and Boca in every year.
Both of those details are still up for discussion, though, and neither overshadow the more important and wide-reaching effects that the overall restructuring will have. “Parachuting” clubs who fall at the Libertadores group stage into the Sudamericana is the only part of what’s been confirmed that doesn’t sound right, and even there it makes more sense for the Sudamericana, which sometimes suffers before the quarter- or even semi-finals for not having enough quality, than it does in the Europa League.
Can the calendar of South American football be further improved? Of course. Argentina’s tenative steps toward having a single championship per season are welcome (albeit the format of that championship is atrocious at present). Brazil settled on a “European” style league itself around a decade ago after years of chopping and changing the championship system, and the stability now seems welcome. It would be hard if not impossible to synchronize calendars across the continent, and I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, but the changes to the Libertadores are probably the “new” CONMEBOL’s most welcome announcement yet.