Brazil's Copa Libertadores struggles can't be solved with just money
Atletico Paranaense of Brazil fought their way into the group phase of the Copa Libertadores, beating Deportivo Capiata of Paraguay with a single goal, scored by the veteran former Argentina international Lucho Gonzalez on Wednesday.
At the same time, some 15 miles away in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion, another Brazilian side were also getting the better of local opposition and booking their place in the group phase.
Botafogo of Rio needed a penalty shootout to get past Olimpia. Their hero was a Paraguayan, goalkeeper Roberto "Gatito" Fernandez, who came off the bench in the second half and saved three of Olimpia's four penalties.
These two stories help explain why Brazilian clubs really should be dominating the Libertadores, South America's version of the Champions League. They pay salaries that are much higher than anywhere else of the continent, and as a consequence they are attracting talent from all over South America.
Last year's champions were Atletico Nacional of Colombia. Four of their cup winning squad now make their living in Brazil. Miguel Borja and Alejandro Guerra will be lining up for Palmeiras in the 2017 Libertadores, Orlando Berrio for Flamengo and Jonathan Copete for Santos. Footballers follow the money, which in contemporary South America means a drift to Brazil.
It would only be natural, therefore, to assume an element of Brazilian supremacy in the competition. But nothing of the sort has happened in recent years. The last Brazilian champions were Atletico Mineiro back in 2013.
Their triumph was dramatic, but hardly convincing. Had Tijuana of Mexico scored from a last-minute penalty then Atletico would have been out at the quarterfinal stage. They needed a penalty shootout to get past Newells Old Boys of Argentina in the semis, and then they met Olimpia.
It was reported at the time that just one player in the Atletico team, Ronaldinho, was earning more than the entire Paraguayan squad combined. But again it was a tight struggle, only settled by a penalty shootout. Atletico were then horribly shown up later that year in the Club World Cup, and no Brazilian club have got as far as the final since.
All of this illustrates the point that money counts in professional football, but it is not necessarily everything. There is also the power of the idea -- as Leicester City proved in last year's Premier League and Sevilla have been showing in Spain this season. And contemporary Brazilian football appears deficient in ideas.
This year Brazil must surely do better. Domestic league winners Palmeiras, for example, can boast a financial capacity and a depth of squad beyond the dreams of clubs from other countries. With no Mexican clubs this year, Argentine football mired in organisational crisis and holders Atletico Nacional going through a rebuilding process, it is hard to see who might stop the 2017 Brazilian challenge.
The evidence of the qualifying rounds, though, is far from conclusive. True, both Botafogo and Atletico Paranaense have eliminated two opponents each. But it has always been tough going. First, Botafogo were just minutes away from elimination when they found the vital goal to knock out Colo Colo of Chile, while Atletico PR were fortunate to take Millonarios of Colombia to a shootout, which they won.
And then Botafogo were narrowly bettered over the two legs by Olimpia before the heroics of Gatito Fernandez. And Atletico had to dig themselves out of a hole after drawing the home leg 3-3 against tiny debutants from Capiata. The Brazilians pulled it out with that Gonzalez goal, but were hanging on for their lives by the final whistle.
Better, more convincing performances will be needed when the group phase starts next month. The Brazilian teams will have to show an improved capacity to retain possession of the ball under pressure if the matches, particularly away from home, are not to provoke their supporters into visiting the cardiologist.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.