Like most recent Club World Cup finals, this year’s showdown between San Lorenzo and all-conquering Real Madrid had a distinctly David vs. Goliath feel. And while a battling start by the Argentinian side kept things close until Sergio Ramos’ header opened the scoring, Madrid were always in control, further emphasizing the huge current gulf between European and South American club soccer. Here are three thoughts on today’s final, a 2-0 win for Madrid in Marrakech:
1) Soccer globalization sees chasm in class between Europe and South America grow
The Club World Cup is an odd beast. Treated as an afterthought in Europe, it remains the highlight of the soccer year in South America, where the continent’s representative starts planning for the tournament the day after winning the Copa Libertadores to book a place in the finals. Perhaps this is part of South America’s problem – after all, six of the last seven CWC winners have come from Europe, with only Corinthians in 2012 bucking the trend.
With the Libertadores final coming in the middle of the domestic soccer calendar, and the Club World Cup carrying such weight, South America’s representatives tend to switch off in the latter half of the year, spending months dreaming of glory against the European big boys instead of concentrating on the meat and potatoes of local competition. San Lorenzo, for example, finished eighth in the Argentinian championship this year, having been mentally strolling among the souks of Marrakech since August. It was hardly ideal preparation for taking on a Real Madrid side in full, magnificent flow -- Los Merengues came into this game on the back of 21 successive victories.
Current form is not South America’s main problem, however. That comes down to simple economics. The difference in value between the Real Madrid squad and their San Lorenzo counterparts is estimated to be about $795 million, with at least seven Madrid players (Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo) worth more than the entire squad of the Argentinian club ($45 million).
While Madrid were deeming the world-class Angel Di Maria surplus to requirements and replacing him with Rodriguez, San Lorenzo were signing 38-year-old Colombian central defender Mario Yepes to tackle the threat that Bale, Ronaldo and company might pose in Morocco. Other key players include veterans such as 33-year-old attacking midfielder Leandro Romagnoli and 34-year-old defensive midfielder Juan Mercier.
South America faces another disadvantage when it comes to the Club World Cup. Unlike Europe, the continent’s big clubs struggle to dominate their domestic leagues, and the region’s status as a selling market means that there can be no stockpiling of talent like at clubs like Real, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Not one team from São Paulo, South America’s largest and richest city, qualified for the 2014 Libertadores, while Argentina’s two biggest clubs, River Plate and Boca Juniors, fought it out in the semi-final of the region’s junior continental tournament, the Copa Sudamericana, having also failed to qualify for the more important Libertadores. Meanwhile, San Lorenzo’s rivals in the semi-finals of South America’s biggest club competition included teams from Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Such equilibrium may be democratic, but it means the continent’s clubs are ill-matched to take on multinational giants such as Madrid or last year’s CWC winners Bayern Munich. It is a shame, considering the success of South American nations at the World Cup – where only one country, Ecuador, failed to qualify from the group stages, and Colombia, Argentina and Chile all impressed – that the region’s club game is in such a dispiriting state.
2) No divine intervention for San Lorenzo
The Lakers have Jack Nicholson, the Yankees Adam Sandler, and Aston Villa, slightly surreally, Tom Hanks. But if you’re going to have a celebrity fan they don’t come any bigger than the Pope. And unlike many glamorous supporters, Pope Francis’ love for San Lorenzo goes way back -- he has been a card-carrying sócio, or member, of the club since he was a young man. Many San Lorenzo fans put the club’s recent success down to papal intervention -- after an agonizingly long wait, the team won the Libertadores for the first time in its 106-year history after Francis was appointed pope.
Even the pontiff couldn’t help San Lorenzo against Real Madrid, however. Nor was there anything holy about the team’s tactics in the early going -- San Lorenzo’s strategy was based around reducing space, closing down Madrid whenever possible, and good old fashioned niggles. While the work rate of central defenders Yepes and Walter Kannemann, and defensive midfielders Mercier and Nestor Ortigoza was admirable, there was something slightly unseemly about the way the same players harangued Guatemalan referee Walter Lopez after a number of decisions that went against their team in the first half.
Not that such tactics were unexpected. San Lorenzo were not going to beat Madrid by playing open, expansive soccer. Coach Edgardo Bauza, whose LDU Quito had restricted Man Utd to a narrow 1-0 win in the 2008 Club World Cup final, knew that making the game as bitty and stop-start as possible, preventing Madrid from settling into their rhythm, was his team’s best chance of success. For a while it looked like it might even work, until Ramos header broke the stout Argentinian resistance. After that there was only going to be one winner, and papal influence was nowhere to be seen when Gareth Bale’s soft second half shot squirmed through Sebastian Torrico’s suddenly buttery fingers to clinch victory.
3) The happy goalscoring knack of Sergio Ramos
Discussing who might be the most important player on a team like Real Madrid is a tough ask. You would obviously have to start with the world’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Then there’s the dynamic, all-action Gareth Bale, and Toni Kroos’ elegant passing and deadly set-pieces. Not forgetting Karim Benzema’s (usually) lethal finishing, and the emergence of exciting attacking midfielder Isco. And where does James Rodriguez come on the list?
But Ronaldo aside, in 2014 it has been hard to ignore the goalscoring achievements of central defender Sergio Ramos. It was Ramos who scored the first two goals in his team’s spectacular dismantling of Bayern Munich in the away leg of the Champions League semi-final, and the same player went on to grab the vital late equalizer that set Madrid on its way to an enthralling victory over hated rival Atletico in the final. Ramos scored the opener against Cruz Azul in the CWC semi-final on Tuesday with a thumping header from a Toni Kroos free-kick, before making the vital breakthrough against San Lorenzo this afternoon with, well, a thumping header from a Toni Kroos corner. Not too shabby a goalscoring run by a central defender – especially one whose place in the final had been threatened by injury.