Gregory Sica
Thursday December 3rd, 2009

After claiming the 2009 Copa Sudamericana in dramatic fashion on Wednesday night -- despite a clear 3-0 defeat to Fluminense at Rio de Janeiro's famed Maracanã (RECAP) -- Liga de Quito proved it's in a stratosphere of its own.

The Ecuadorians, who won by a 5-4 aggregate score over the two legs, now can consider themselves one of the most dominant clubs in South America after adding to their Copa Libertadores victory of '08, when they also got the better of Fluminense in the finals.

Liga put an end to a 78-year wait for a first international title with that triumph -- which was also a first for Ecuador. But rather than sit back on its achievement, LDU understood that in order to consolidate its position as a leading club, it had to win another major title.

Many wrote off that Libertadores title as a fluke. But Liga regrouped and struck again in winning the Sudamericana -- Latin America's second-most coveted international club trophy -- and cemented its status among the select group of the most successful clubs on the continent in recent years, along with Boca Juniors, São Paulo and Internacional.

Only a few years ago, the mere idea that a club from Ecuador could win a South American title was considered a joke. That wasn't only because no Ecuadorian team had ever won an international title before, but because the level of soccer produced by its clubs was far inferior -- not only to that of teams from continental titans Argentina and Brazil, but also to that of teams from the majority of the other nations.

For moments on Wednesday, those painful memories came back to haunt Ecuadorian fans. Liga was completely ripped apart in the second leg by a far superior Fluminense side, which came close to scoring a fourth goal that would have forced a penalty shootout. After experiencing such a defeat, in which Flu could have won by a much greater difference, is Liga still worthy of its title?

Many would say yes, because of its rampant display in Quito last week. The more analytical observers would say no, and bring that victory down to the effects of the altitude. It's a hard line to tow. Liga is an extremely solid team, and has proven it's one of the leading clubs of the region. But it's hard to ignore the profound home-field advantage it has over its opponents when playing in the Ecuadorian capital high in the Andes Mountains, 9,350 feet above sea level.

In order to back that argument, it's essential to provide evidence of the telling effects altitude can have on the outcome of a game. Many people from outside South America don't have a good understanding of how harsh these conditions really are. One memorable example was during South American qualifying for the 1994 World Cup. Bolivia beat Brazil 2-0 in La Paz, 11,932 feet above sea level. But when the teams met on the Atlantic coast in Recife just a month later, Brazil claimed an emphatic 6-0 win.

Brazilians are generally known for having great difficulty when playing in the altitude, whether it be in Bolivia, Ecuador or Colombia. That was made very clear again in Quito last week when Fluminense was thumped by Liga in the first leg of the Sudamericana finals. Flu went 1-0 ahead 40 seconds after kickoff, but as the minutes ticked by, and the air seemed to get thinner and thinner for the Brazilians, Liga made the most of its home-field advantage, scoring three of its five goals in the final half-hour of the game.

When you take a look at Liga's triumphant campaign, the Ecuadorians won all five of their home games, scoring a whopping 19 goals and conceding only two. Their away record wasn't anywhere near as good, as they didn't win a single game.

Looking back at Liga's Libertadores title run last year, the side finished the tournament unbeaten at home, but lost four of its seven away games. Argentine Edgardo Bauza, the coach at the time, repeatedly said his team was one side at home and another when playing on the road. To combat that, he stressed the importance for Liga to move the ball around as quickly as possible when playing in Quito, especially in the first half, to wear out its opponents.

This shouldn't take anything away from Liga's achievements. If LDU didn't have such a strong team, altitude wouldn't be a debate. Under Bauza and now with Uruguayan coach Jorge Fossati, the side clearly has mastered the art of playing in the altitude, which explains its aggressive style and the number of spectacular goals it scores from distance, as was in evidence against Flu last week. Yes, the ball travels at a unique speed in such thin air, but can you blame Liga for taking advantage of its own environment?

Liga's undisputed success is a combination of several factors, most notably its infrastructure and the impressive board of intelligent, hardworking people, who had planned meticulously to take Liga to the next level. Leading club directors, the father-and-son duo of Rodrigo and Esteban Paz, have been at the head of Liga's rise to prominence. For years, they've been transforming the club into a South American heavyweight, and with dedication, hard work and patience, they finally have their juggernaut.

After selling a number of key players after its Libertadores triumph a year ago, Liga decided to replace them with even better players, even if it was after the FIFA Club World Cup, in which it lost in the final to then-European champion Manchester United. LDU did crash out of the group stage of the '09 Libertadores, but the club was in the middle of this rebuilding process.

The signings this year of Ecuadorian national-team veterans Édison Méndez and Ulises de la Cruz, two experienced players who spent considerable time in Europe's big leagues, made all of the difference for Liga. The fact the club board also kept prolific Argentine striker Claudio Bieler was also important, as he topped the Sudamericana scoring charts with eight goals.

But even if Liga has now claimed South America's two most important trophies, Esteban Paz, who is now the club's most influential decision-maker, believes this is only the beginning. LDU's objective is to maintain itself at the top of the South American soccer hierarchy for many years to come.

"Lots [is still left to do]," Paz told futbolecuador.com. "We have to maintain what is happening now and we mustn't forget that all that has been achieved has come down to hard work. But we have to keep on working, fighting and to remain at the top. To reach this is very complicated, but to maintain it is even more complicated. Now, we have to think about creating a project for 2010."

Unlike in Europe, where a handful of the richest teams dominate the competition year in, year out, financial constraints and a swirling transfer market create an even bigger gap between South America's haves and have-nots. When you consider the fact that both Boca Juniors and River Plate, two of the continent's most successful clubs, failed to even qualify for the 2010 Copa Libertadores, you can understand the reason why smaller, ambitious clubs can break into the pack.

Liga de Quito's historic run of success is the perfect example. Hats off to the Sudamericana champions.

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