The date is the 23rd November 2019. It’s been a good day for the football fan, particularly the neutral, Mourinho’s Premier League return to Tottenham opens the day’s action with Chelsea vs Man City concluding the day’s Premier League proceedings. Sandwiched betwixt this chunky pair is a host of entertaining Premier League fixtures, with not one home team winning their 3 o’clock fixture. All in all it’s a nice distraction from the political bullshit that the country has been subjected to throughout the week (if not for the last two years). As the whistle blows at the Etihad you could presume that the day’s footballing action has drawn to a close. Wrong.
BBC2 have given us the pleasure of transporting us across the Atlantic to one of the more exotic footballing exhibitions that you’re going to be exposed to this weekend. Welcome to Lima. An historic city, the kernel for Peruvian independence which has today been transformed into a melting pot of football fervour. Two of continents heavyweights, River Plate of Argentina and Flamengo of Brazil, are set to go toe to toe in the first one-legged Copa Libertadores Final. The Estadio Monumental is the lucky host, the continents largest stadium, and it is absolutely bouncing. I’m watching from my Lancashire base, itching to be there, just dying to sample some of the atmosphere.
The game also sees the South American club game’s two most renowned managers pitted against each other. In one corner it’s Jorge Jesus, once a Europa League winner at Benfica, leading a side with experienced European pedigree, somewhat unusual for your standard South American side. Facing him Marcelo Gallardo. He’s brought River Plate from the doldrums and he’s now looking at a potential consecutive Libertadores win, having beat arch-rivals Boca the previous year. He’s been mooted as a potential successor to the Barcelona job and he’s just seen a statue of himself erected outside of River’s home, El Monumental. He’s only 43.
This has all the ingredients necessary to generate quite the saga.
The more disciplined european style of play that both teams have supposedly adopted in the build up to the final is not immediately apparent in the opening stanza. Ten minutes of frantic pressing from either team, with neither able to exert obvious possessional control on the game, eventually culminates with Rafael Santos Borre’s opening goal, 14 minutes in. Perhaps the pitch is to blame for the agitation? It was a talking point pre-match but it’s more likely a result of the sheer scale of the occasion. Regardless, Santos Borre capitalises on some shocking Flamengo defending, finishes well and sets the tone.
River go on to dominate, with Exequiel Palacios in particular exerting a growing control on the game. An exasperated Jorge Jesus is furious and seeks an urgent reaction from his team. He’s a frenzy of limbs, leaving billowing sleeves flailing in the air, demanding that Flamengo up the pace. They’ve been quite content to just get their foot on the ball thus far, struggling to find any sort of tempo and fluidity in their game. Jesus looks somewhere between swashbuckling pirate and Rolling Stone. It’s quite the look and the crazed look in his wild Portuguese eyes combines with an effervescent haircut giving an enigmatic appearance to match an enigmatic demeanour.
Conversely, Gallardo is a more reserved character, prowling the touchline, observing every minute detail of the game as it unfolds, aiming to exhibit a calmness in the hope that his team will follow suit and manifest this in their play. “See it out” is the unspoken instruction. Make no mistake, this game has heaps of talent on the pitch and the ensuing tactical battle of wits is compelling. River have the game in the palm of their hand but all of a sudden, with 89 minutes on the clock, Gabigol shows up.
Some background. Gabriel Barbosa is Flamengo’s frontman, a loanee from Inter Milan, he’s struggled to hit it off thus far in Italy, and a return to his home country has proved the perfect platform to put him back on the map and the Flamengo fans adore him. Don’t write him off just yet. This bloke was one of Brazil’s top prospects as he came through the ranks at Santos and here’s a timely reminder that he’s only 23.
Barbosa’s been somewhat aloof throughout the game, mentioned in commentary irregularly, sometimes in passing, perhaps out of politeness. It’s certainly not an acknowledgement of the impact that he’s had on the game, he’s been almost anonymous. But Gabigol blossoms and takes on a greater form, embodying the true nature of South American football - Unpredictability.
Just when you think that this is just like every other game you’ve seen today, you must remind yourself that this is the Copa Libertadores. This is South America. Just when you think River have the tactical nous and wherewithal to see this game out, Barbosa bursts onto the scene. He follows up intricate work by Bruno Henrique and Giorgia De Arrascaeta to tap in with 89 minutes on the clock and on 92, chasing a long, hopeful ball, harries veteran defender Javier Pinola in the River penalty box, regaining possession and blasting past Armani to break Argentine hearts. 2-1. Flamengo’s cup. Brazilian bedlam.
From there the game finishes in a frenzy, similar to the fixtures opening, an absolute frenzy. This wouldn’t be a South American Final without a sending off and Palacios duly obliges. Out of frustration he kicks out at Bruno Henrique, rightly receiving a straight red. In the ensuing melee, Barbosa receives a second yellow seemingly for applauding the referee;s decision to dismiss Palacios, the first yellow received for removing his shirt in celebrating his winning goal. After 89 minutes of relative anonymity, Gabigol has managed to put his stamp on the game in the remaining 6, scoring twice and receiving his marching orders practically on the final whistle. Welcome to South America.
The BBC’s coverage of the game was exemplary, they’ve embraced what’s been something of a watershed moment for the tournament. For all the bad publicity and violence that plagued the previous year’s Boca vs River two-legged final - and the moving of the second leg to Bernabau - the coverage of either leg and the (non-violent) passion of the fans seen in either continent was proliferated expertly and what became quite evident was a deep European interest in both the final and South American football generally. Against all the odds this has proved to be a big boost, internationally speaking, for the competition. There’s no such thing as BAD publicity.
Furthermore, South American football tends to fare very well against adversity. The plane crash tragedy that befell Chapecoense in 2016, travelling to Medellin to fare in their inaugural Copa Sudamericana final was felt worldwide. Furthermore, the humble reaction shown by Atletico Nacional - Chapecoense’s fellow finalists - in requesting that CONMEBOL award the trophy to Verdão, was highly commendable. Additionally, the response from Brazilian Serie A rival clubs was also exemplary. While their initial suggestion of a 3 year period to be exempt from relegation was rejected by Chape, 14 loans - 12 of which came from Serie A Rivals - alongside a host of free transfers, ensured that they were able to remain competitive within the division despite an entire squad rebuild.
CONMEBOL now look set to embrace a one-legged showpiece Copa Libertadores Final. It could be an effective expansion tool for the tournament, both from a televising perspective globally and economically for the host city. In the long run this could break the hegemony of the Argentinian and Brazilian leagues but, given that the top six qualify for the tournament and 7th to 12th qualifying for the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent. Practically, this means that, depending on the results of the Brazilian domestic cup final and both continental competitions, that as many as 15 Brazilian teams could qualify for Continental football. Regardless, we’ll be watching the showpiece final. It’s entertainment galore.
South American football epitomises the heart, passion and chaos of the game. It’s a fervent football frenzy, whether you’re watching the Libertadores final between continental heavyweights River Plate and Flamengo or a Peruvian top flight relegation scrap. This passion manifests itself in the trickery, the speed and the sheer lunacy of it all. Até logo.
Image Credits: Both creative commons: 1.) Estadio de Universitario, Raúl Cantella. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EstadioUniversitario.jpg 2.) Final de la Copa Libertadores 2019, Angel Prokill https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Estadio_Monumental_de_Lima_durante_la_final_de_la_Copa_Libertadores_2019.jpg