By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The first round of the 2014 Copa Libertadores – the group stages – kick-off next week, and the greatest prize in South American club football potentially has two Carioca entrants. The Libertadores is made up of 32 clubs across South America and Mexico, who were invited to enter in 1998, with teams split into eight groups of four with the top two in each progressing to the knock-out phase.
Matches are subsequently played over two legs to determine the champion. Recent years have been dominated by the Brazilians, with the last four editions being won by Internacional, Santos, Corinthians and Atlético-MG.
This year Botafogo must pass a preliminary round to progress to the competition itself. Last week, they played the first round of their qualifier away to Deportivo Quito of Ecuador.
Yet with a second leg at the Maracanã Stadium tonight (Wednesday) hopes remain high that the Glorioso can reach the group stage. It would be their first appearance in the tournament for eighteen years.
The other Rio side, with their place already booked in the first round after their Copa do Brasil triumph last November, is Brazil’s biggest club, Flamengo. The Rubro-Negro have been drawn in Group 7 alongside Bolívar of Bolivia, Emelec of Ecuador and Mexico’s Club Léon. They kick-off their campaign next week in Mexico against Léon.
Coach Jayme de Ameida has used his first-choice players sparingly thus far in the state championship, the Campeonato Carioca, and there is indication his ploy is reaping rewards on the pitch for the club.
Flamengo comprehensively dispatched Macaé on Sunday in the Campeonato Carioca, 5-2. Number nine Hernane, scorer of 35 goals last year, bagged the first four in the match as he finds form before continental competition.
After a sailing start to the Carioca tournament, Flamengo are looking for their first Libertadores crown since 1981, when their team was led by former Seleção icon Zico. They could become the fifth successive Brazilian club to lift the trophy.
Since its launch in 1960, the tournament is not only the most prestigious in South America but one of the most respected titles in club football. The FIFA World Club Cup, held in December each year, is often eagerly anticipated as it gives one South American club an opportunity to pit its wits against one of Europe’s finest.
Despite recent achievements, Brazil are not the most successful nation in the history of the Libertadores. Argentine clubs have a total of twenty-two titles, whilst Brazilian outfits have seventeen. The most successful Brazilian clubs in the history of the competition are Paulista. São Paulo and Santos have both won the tournament on three occasions, the latter as recently as 2011.
Their triumph eventually led to the final of the World Club Cup and a meeting with Barcelona, considered at the time the greatest team on the planet. In a contest dubbed “Messi versus Neymar” the Catalans ran out easy winners 4-0.
In the same way that the superior financial muscle of the Europeans gives them a distinct advantage, the same applies to Brazil and the Copa Libertadores. The strengthening of the country’s economy, despite a slowing of pace over the last year, has given them a massive boost over their South American opponents.
Brazil have six entrants in this year’s tournament; Atlético-MG, Cruzeiro, Flamengo, Grêmio, Atlético-PR and Botafogo. Defending champions Atlético-MG and current Brasileirão title holders Cruzeiro must go in as favorites, and it would bewhilst Rio’s entrants try go one better than Fluminense, who reached the final in 2008 only to lose on penalties to Ecuadorian club LDU Quito.