Gregory Sica
Thursday December 4th, 2008

After 210 minutes of nail-biting action, Sport Clube Internacional lifted the Copa Sudamericana for the first time on Wednesday, an achievement that cements its status as one of the leading clubs in South American soccer history.

Internacional overcame a determined Estudiantes de La Plata 2-1 on aggregate over the two legs -- thanks to a dramatic 113th minute winner from outstanding striker Nilmar -- when it seemed the final would be decided by a penalty shootout.

The enthusiastic crowd of 55,000 at the Beiro-Rio stadium of Porto Alegre, Brazil, was treated to an extraordinary encounter that could have gone either way. But in the end, Internacional proved its superiority and claimed a title that completes a memorable last couple of years for the club.

Inter won its first major international trophy in 2006 with the Copa Libertadores, South America's biggest club competition. That same year, it ousted FC Barcelona for the Club World Cup title in Japan, and the following year it claimed the Recopa Sudamericana. Its latest title triumph, the Copa Sudamericana, saw it join Boca Juniors as the only club in South America to have lifted every single international trophy available.

Much of the credit should go to the Internacional board, a professional bunch of people who understand that success only comes with hard work. Not only did the club go out of its way to bring in high-profile players like Andrés D'Alessandro, Nilmar and Pablo Guiñazú, but it also managed to maintain highly rated players like Alex and Edinho, despite ongoing pressure from abroad.

Inter's title triumph was a culmination of several determining factors that have characterized the southern Brazilian club over the years: a winning mentality, hard work and determination.

Internacional proved to be worthy winners of the Sudamericana after an extraordinary campaign in which it remained undefeated through all 10 of its matches. But despite proving superior to everyone it faced, it would be a mistake not to recognize that the unconventional format of the competition opened its path to glory.

Since its installment in '02, the credibility of the Copa Sudamericana has been questioned because of its complicated format and ridiculous selection criteria. Unlike Europe's UEFA Cup, which involves the weaker teams of the continent, the Sudamericana predominantly consists of the top clubs of the region. But even so, the credibility of the tournament has diminished because of a lack of organization.

Widely considered the second-tier competition in South America behind the Libertadores, the Sudamericana began to pick up in status a few years ago because of its exciting knockout format. But since then, and particularly this year, it has lost great prominence because of varying reasons.

In Brazil, for instance, the teams that gain entry to the tournament are the league winners, as well as those who finish between fifth and 12th place in the standings. This means not all the best teams take part, and this evidently has affected the level of quality on display. It's no surprise then, that after seven editions, Internacional was the first Brazilian club to win the title, in comparison to four wins for Argentine clubs (no Brazilian team had even reached the final before).

But perhaps what mostly affects the Sudamericana's reputation is that the only clubs that consider the tournament a first priority are those from the weaker South American leagues: pretty much all except for Brazil and Argentina.

This edition was a perfect example of the level of importance the competition is given. Most Brazilian teams fielded reserve squads for the tournament in order to rest their top players for the "more important" Campeonato Brasileiro.

Major clubs such as São Paulo, Palmeiras and Grêmio performed well below their potential in order to concentrate on the domestic competition. All three of these teams had realistic chances of winning the Brazilian Championship, which will likely be won by São Paulo in the final round of the season on Sunday.

The Copa Sudamericana comes at a decisive stage of the Brasileiro, and clubs can't afford to hurt their chances at the expense of international recognition. Even teams who face possible relegation decided to reserve their starters for league play. Such was the case with Atlético Paranaense, which is why it was eliminated in the round of 16 by Chivas de Guadalajara, a struggling side that eventually bowed out after a 6-0 aggregate demolition by Inter.

Two-time winners Boca Juniors -- who are unfairly granted automatic entry into the round of 16 stage, along with River Plate, irrespective of their league form -- also took the competition as a second priority this season, as they set their sights on the Argentine Apertura Championship.

Boca coach Carlos Ischia fielded alternative sides in his team's four Copa matches, and although it managed to eliminate Libertadores champion LDU Quito in the round of 16, it was knocked out by Internacional in the quarterfinals after an unexpected 4-1 aggregate defeat, including a rare loss at the Bombonera stadium in the second leg.

Had Boca utilized its "real" team, perhaps the strongest of the continent, it could have been a much different story. The Buenos Aires giants had eliminated Inter on the way to their '04 and '05 Sudamericana triumphs. Those editions of the competition were taken with much more seriousness.

In retrospect, it was no coincidence that the '08 finalists of the competition -- Inter and Estudiantes -- had little possibility of fighting for domestic honors this season, and unlike other teams involved in the tournament, focused all their attention on the international scene.

For the Copa Sudamericana to remain a credible competition, and not a waste of time like the UEFA Cup, drastic measures must be implemented. The tournament is in much need of innovation, and unless it is revamped in the following years, it will continue to sit in the shadows of the Copa Libertadores.

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