Brazilian clubs are failing in the Copa Libertadores despite huge resources

The Rio Report

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When Atlético Mineiro won the Copa Libertadores – South America’s Champions League – in 2013, they gained a whole raft of new followers. With recognisable stars like Ronaldinho and Gilberto Silva, a thrilling emerging talent in Bernard and a cosy stadium that throbbed with sound on match night, they were certainly an attractive proposition.

At the Independência (they turned down the chance to play at the renovated Mineirão), the Roosters would overwhelm opponents with their high-intensity game plan, pressing all over the pitch and attacking with ruthless diagonal thrusts. It wasn’t the most nuanced tactical set-up, but by golly it worked.

Their success appeared to confirm a trend: Brazil was simply getting too good at this Libertadores lark. Atlético were the fourth Brazilian winners in four years, following in the footsteps of Internacional, Neymar’s Santos side and Corinthians, who went through the competition unbeaten in 2012, conceding just four goals. You had to go back to 2004 for the last final with no Brazilian representation.

This dominance was largely grounded in money. In recent years, Brazilian football has taken something of a Great Leap Forward when it comes to the commercial side of the game, exploring new revenue streams and profiting from growing global interest.

Corinthians, for instance, brought in R$153.8m (£41m) from television rights in 2013, compared to just R$12m (£3m) for another of the continent’s traditional powerhouses, Boca Juniors. The São Paulo club’s annual turnover, meanwhile, is over double that of Boca. The rest of South America simply cannot keep up.

That spending power has allowed Brazilian clubs to cherry-pick the best gringos on the continent, further strengthening their position. Before the European summer transfer window opened, there were 96 non-Brazilians registered, including national team players from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay.

“The top foreign players can earn R$700,000 (£190,000) a month here,” agent Roberto Miguel told Placar last month. “At Boca, the best players would only earn that in a year.” In Uruguay, meanwhile, “you won’t earn more than R$35,000 (£9,000) a month.”

It is precisely for this reason that Brazil now seeks to measure itself against the European game, whose salaries it can match. “They pay well here… often even better than over there,” former Ajax midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro, now at Botafogo, told Placar.

But money isn’t everything in sport, and history has a habit of giving such dynasties short shrift. So it proved this season. When Série A champions Cruzeiro were knocked out of the Libertadores by San Lorenzo last week, the spell was broken: with Grêmio, Atlético-MG, Botafogo, Flamengo and Atlético-PR already having been eliminated, Brazil had no semi-finalist in the competition for the first time since 1991.

This is likely but a temporary blip but it has given rise to a certain amount of soul-searching. ESPN’s André Rocha criticised the tendency of Brazilian players to play-act when in a sticky situation (“they keep trying to win free-kicks, but that doesn’t usually work in the Libertadores”), while Jô said the performances of Brazilian sides “left a lot to be desired”. The Atlético-MG forward also suggested that the fear of defeat had too often trumped the urge to win.

If this is the case, it should hardly be surprising given the short-termism that pervades the Brazilian game. Coaches are only ever three or four games away from the sack; after just five rounds of the Brasileirão, no fewer than seven clubs have changed their manager. As such, there is a caution built in to the approach of many: better to draw and live to fight another day than to risk defeat in search of victory.

It is telling that two of Brazil’s recent Libertadores triumphs came when coaches were given a good chunk of time to mould a team: Tite benefitted from the patience of the Corinthians board, as did Cuca at Atlético. Without that kind of stability, Brazil’s continental dominance will never be total – no matter how much money is spent.

Jack Lang - @snap_kaka_pop

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