Historical Copa Libertadores final could bring Club World Cup buzz
The final of this year's Copa Libertadores is a tasty dish for aficionados of soccer history. Doing battle over two legs are the first two teams to win the trophy.
At home this week is Penarol of Uruguay, winner of the inaugural two versions of the Libertadores. Five-time champions, Penarol's last title came in 1987.
Santos of Brazil, meanwhile, has had double the wait. It's been 48 years since the second of Santos' two triumphs, back when Pele was at his peak. And the previous year Santos ended Penarol's early monopoly when it beat the Uruguayans to claim the trophy for the first time in an epic struggle that was resolved after three matches.
Many remember that 1962 final now that the same two teams made it through to the decider. But there is another clash between Santos and Penarol that might not be so well recalled but which had a huge effect on the development of the global game. In March 1965 the two rivals squared up in the semifinals. Once more it went to three matches, once more it was gripping stuff -- but in one of the hidden gems of soccer's past, this time the outcome was different.
Santos steamed into an early lead in its home leg but was pulled back and had to be satisfied with a win by the delightfully old-fashioned margin of 5-4. Three days later in Montevideo, Penarol won 3-2. With no away goals rule in operation, a third match was played on neutral ground. Pele was on target again -- he was by some margin the top goal-scorer in that year's competition -- but Penarol scored twice. Santos was eliminated -- and, as it proved, out of more than just that year's Libertadores.
After its triumphs of 1962 and '63, this was the second consecutive campaign in which the club had fallen in the semifinals. Following the defeat to Penarol, Santos decided that it was no longer interested in taking part in the competition.
In hindsight it looks like a strange decision. At the time it was logical enough. South America is huge, and traveling around the continent is expensive. The mid-'60s was some time before the big business of TV rights had taken off. Without television money to bankroll the thing, there was little financial incentive to play in the Libertadores -- especially for Santos.
The name and prestige that Santos has established around the world is especially remarkable given the relative size of the club. Santos is from the port an hour away from the metropolis of Sao Paulo. By rights there is no way that the club should be able to compete with the likes of Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Palmeiras, the big-city giants. Santos has a relatively small catchment area and a tiny stadium. In the mid-'60s this gave Santos a problem. How on earth could it finance a squad which included Pele as well as his exceptional supporting cast?
The answer was to turn its back on the Libertadores and turn itself into soccer's version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Santos toured South America, North America, Europe, Africa -- where in January 1969 its presence is supposed to have caused a cease fire in the Biafran War -- packing out stadiums and filling up their coffers.
All this missionary work meant, though, that when it came to international titles Santos was limited to the two Libertadores and the two world crowns of 1962 and '63. It is for this reason that the name of the club is not heard loud enough in the debate about the best side of all time. The claim of Alfredo Di Stefano's Real Madrid is grounded in all those consecutive wins in the first years of the European Cup. Santos could have gone on to do something similar in South America through the second half of the '60s. But, as we have seen, its priorities lay elsewhere.
The withdrawal of Santos from the Libertadores made it much easier for Argentine clubs to establish a stranglehold on the competition -- at a time when soccer in the country had traded the glorious idealism of the 1940s for something much more cynical. Estudiantes of La Plata became the dominant force. In many ways they were ahead of their time, with their attention to detail and concentration on set pieces. But there was an unlovable pragmatism about their play, and a concept of soccer as conflict rather than entertainment.
It was at this point that the old Intercontinental Cup, seen as the world club title, began to fall into disrepute. The annual contest between the champions of Europe and South America had started with such promise. By his own evaluation the finest performance of Pele's career came in 1962 when he tore Benfica to pieces in Lisbon. But as the '60s wore on the games started attracting headlines for all the wrong reasons. Doubtless there were faults on both sides. History, though, has judged the Argentines, and especially Estudiantes as the bearers of most of the guilt for the niggles and the brawls that took place. Into the '70s the European champions often declined to take part, concluding that the contest caused more trouble than it was worth. Either there was no Inter-Continental trophy, or the European runner-up stepped in, thus devaluing the occasion.
Now, of course, the Club World Cup is an established part of the calendar, involving the champions from all the continents. The competition has yet to catch fire, though, and grab the planet's attention in the same way as the World Cup -- or the Champions League.
And there lies the problem. The European teams have been so superior, so packed with talent from the four corners of the globe, that little excitement is generated. True, the South Americans can still come out on top -- Sao Paulo beat Liverpool in 2005, Internacional overcame Barcelona the following year. But both times the approach of the Brazilian clubs acknowledged the superiority of their opponents, and that the only way to win was to fight from a trench and spring the occasional counter attack. There was nothing there to stir the neutral.
That might change this year -- as long as Santos qualifies by winning the Libertadores. Barcelona against Santos could be just the kick-start that the Club World Cup badly needs. Lionel Messi, the emperor of the world game, up against Neymar, the boy prince. Paulo Henrique Ganso anxious to show that he can thread a pass with the aplomb of a Xavi or an Iniesta. It is a wonderful prospect.
But first Santos must get past Penarol. The Uruguayans lost five of their 12 games in this year's competition. They have conceded more goals than they have scored. But they have shown great reserves of character and a game plan that gives them the chance of rising to the occasion.
They will doubtless keep their back four close together to protect themselves from the bursts of Neymar and will seek to break quickly in support of awkward center forward Olivera. Few gave Penarol much chance against Internacional of Brazil or Velez Sarsfield of Argentina. And yet here it is in the final.
From a neutral point of view, the hope must surely be that these two matches prove worthy successors to the drama that Penarol and Santos provided in 1962 and '65 -- though I for one will not be betting on a replay of that 5-4 score line.