A guide to the most prestigious club football competition in the South American football calendar.
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The Copa Libertadores is the South American equivalent of the Champions League here in Europe. It is a strongly competed competition offering a place to winners from all CONMEBOL (The South American UEFA) member assosciations. Teams that finish from 2nd-4th in stronger leagues such as Brazil get a place. Most other teams qualify through winning the half year tournaments in their countries, commonly called ‘Apertura’ and ‘Clausura’. In Argentina, two places also go to teams with the best aggregate record across these, who were also not champions in either section. The winners of the Copa Sudamericana, the equivalent of the UEFA Cup, gain a place, along with the reigning champions of the Libertadores. As of 1998 Mexican teams were invited to compete in the tournament, despite being members of CONCACAF. In this years Copa there is 3 Mexican teams. However, the Mexican champions do not qualify, instead they participate in the CONCACAF Champions League as this gives them the possibility of a spot in the FIFA World Club Cup, which they would otherwise be ineligible for by competing in a CONMEBOL competition.
The Copa begins with the First Phase, which commenced in January. There were six two-legged ties. The winners being the team with the greatest aggregate points after the two legs (3 points for a win – 1 for a draw – 0 for a loss), rather than score, as is used in Europe. If the points are equal then it is down to goal difference. If this is equal, it moves on to away goals. If this still remains equal then the tie is decided by the cruel Penalty Shootout. These rules hold in the latter knock-out phase of the competition, after the group stage. You may recall that Corinthians did not make it through this stage this year. It was one of the factors behind Roberto Carlos’ departure.
The Second Phase is the Group Stage of the competition. This consists of eight groups of four teams. Just like the Champions League, they play each other twice,home and away and the top two teams from each group qualify for the knockout stage. The matches are more spread out however. They most frequently take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, though this is not set in stone. Each team usually plays one game in the tournament every two weeks. This again is not iron-cast, a team can play on consecutive weeks.
The knockout phase takes the layout as mentioned above, with an aggregate point system, followed by goal difference and away goals. However, the Final is not subject to the away goals rule. Instead, if the tie is level on points, goal difference, then extra time is played. If scores are still level after this then there is a penalty shootout. This occurred for the first time in the 2008 final between LDU Quito and Fluminese.
The winners of the competition play in the Recopa Sudamericana. This is a two-legged tie against the winners of the Copa Sudamericana. This can be compared to the UEFA Super Cup but over 2 legs rather than a one-off match.
Now we have outlined the structure of the tournament, a little bit of history is need to get a taste for the Copa. The most successful team is Independiente of Argentina with seven competition wins, followed by Boca Juniors with six and Penarol of Uruguay with five. Independiente and Penarol have been drawn in the same group this year which should make for a couple of cracking games. The first was just that, as Independiente ran out 3-0 winners. The return match taking place on April 12 is definitely one to look forward to. The highest attendance was in the 1992 Final between Sao Paulo and Newell’s at the Estadio do Morumbi of 120,000. The all-time top goal scorer is the Ecuadorian Alberto Spencer who debuted in 1960. He scored 54 goals in 87 matches for Penarol and Barcelona SC. Daniel Onega has the best goals to game ratio. He scored 31 in 47 for River Plate, with 17 coming in the 1966 tournament alone.
I hope this has given you a taste of the heritage of the competition as well as a basic knowledge of how the tournament runs. Most teams have now played two games in the group stage, with some having played three. I will be covering the tournament as it progresses from now on and let you know of any new potential gems emerging from South America, along with how current prospects such as Neymar and Ganso are performing. I will also fill you in on key scores and performers all the way to the final in June.