The CONMEBOL Copa Libertadores is South America’s version of the UEFA Champions League. It’s the raw, unfiltered, and in your face version of the Champions League. It is the tournament where stars are born, and the reason why heroes return home. It is where an armed riot guard stands at every corner flag, and where players walk onto the field only to be greeted by an elaborate 12th man reception of flares and intricate tifos, where confetti covers the pitch and fireworks light up the night sky.
With 8 groups of 4 teams, Copa Libertadores follows the same UEFA Champions League format. The tournament used to be held in the spring, with the second tier Copa Sudamericana, being held in the fall. Copa Libertadores was given a modern makeover for the 2017 season, where it was extended to last the entire year. Unlike the UEFA or CONCACAF confederations, CONMEBOL is only made up of just 10 federations, meaning that each country will be represented by at least two teams to start off the group stage. The vast amount of culture and history that is shared on the South American continent, combined with political and social rivalries makes Copa Libertadores the ultimate pressure cooker.
For football fans who don´t follow the South American leagues, the continent is a humongous academy, full of raw, untapped potential. If South America serves as an ‘NCAA’ for the world’s top leagues, then Copa Libertadores is March Madness. South American soccer leagues don’t have billionaire foreign investors or huge television rights deals, and few players are millionaires. Players play for their fans, for their colors, and for the clubs that helped turned them into men. The pride that South American players have for their clubs is unrivaled anywhere else in the world, with many players attributing their successful careers to the education they received at their boyhood clubs, both on and off the field. It’s what brings legends like Carlos Tevez back to Boca Juniors, where he is managed by ex-Columbus Crew playmaker Guillermo Barros-Schelotto.
The passion and ‘win at all costs’ mentality does have its trade-offs, however. Sportsmanship is severely compromised in South America. Dives are more prevalent, tackles are more reckless, and losing teams may want to pick a fight before walking off the pitch, especially when a game is decided by a contentious decision late in the match. Referees, who meet at midfield at the final whistle, are often berated by players and managers alike. Riot police accompany referees at all times once the game has ended. This is to protect referees when the players and club’s staff members get out of hand. It is also to escort the referees off the pitch, holding their shields above the referee’s heads before entering the tunnel.
Despite its shortcomings, MLS fans should be especially interested in Copa Libertadores. The majority of MLS’ top imports come from South America, specifically Argentina, with almost all of them having played in Copa Libertadores. Atlanta United’s Hector Villalba and Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti were winners with San Lorenzo in 2014. While Copa Sudamericana has the prestige, Copa Sudamericana is often equal in talented teams. Recent Red Bull signing Kaku Romeo Gamarra took Huracán to the final of Copa Sudamericana in 2015, as well as recent Atlanta United signing Ezequiel Barco, who won Copa Sudamericana with Independiente in November 2017. Once you get to the knockout rounds, the two tournaments are indistinguishable in talent. This is due to the relative parity in South American soccer. The lack of huge investment in transfers and wages means that the tops teams are not that far ahead of their competition. This gives smaller teams the opportunity to qualify for Copa Libertadores while big teams often occupy the Copa Sudamericana places. Big clubs have relatively high turnover due to constantly having to sell their top talent, often being victims of their own success. In 2016, Atlético Nacional sold 7 of their best players for over $25 million after winning the and Colombian league and Copa Libertadores double.
While small teams from any country can make a big Copa Libertadores run, most recently Independiente del Valle of Ecuador, Paraguayan and Bolivian sides are especially dangerous. A Paraguayan side has reached the quarterfinals every year from 2010-2015. This six-year run of quarterfinal appearances was achieved by five different clubs. Four of them reached the semis, with one making it all the way to the final. Bolivian teams haven’t fared so well in the knock out stages, with only one club reaching the semifinals and another reaching the quarterfinals since 2010. However, Bolivian sides punch well above their weight when playing at home, due to one of the world’s most extreme home field advantages. Playing two miles above sea level, as well as poor field conditions, often turn Brazilian and Argentine powerhouses into underdogs.
The player to look at this year in Copa Libertadores is Racing Club de Avellaneda striker Lautaro Martínez. The 20-year-old striker is in his second full season at the Buenos Aires club and has already had offers from Real Madrid, Atéltico Madrid, and Inter Milan. Racing Club has a track record of producing top players, and Martínez already has the good fortune of playing alongside accomplished goal scorers like Diego Milito, Lisandro Lopez, and Gustavo Bou. As the sporting director of the club, Milito is able to serve as a professional mentor for Martínez, who is being closely watched by Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli and has a good chance of making the World Cup squad this summer.