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 By Tim Vickery

Four clubs in the Copa Sudamericana quarters shows Colombia is on the rise

Santa Fe players celebrate
Colombia's Independiente Santa Fe are the reigning Copa Sudamericana champions.

Three countries dominate this year's Copa Sudamericana, South America's Europa League equivalent.

Over the next two week, the quarterfinalists will be defined. Put together, 11 of the last 16 come from Argentina, Brazil and Colombia.

In the case of the first two countries, this is hardly a surprise. Three slots in the last 16 are reserved for Argentine teams, and four slots are reserved for Brazilians. All the clubs from these countries have done so far is beat one of their compatriots.

The representatives of all the other nations have had a rougher ride. They have come through two rounds against international opponents. All started with four teams in the field. Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru already have none left. Paraguay still have two teams, while Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela have one apiece. And Colombia still have four.

True, one Colombian side has been eliminated -- Tolima lost in the opening round to Deportivo La Guaira of Venezuela. The Colombians, though, still have four teams because they can boast last year's champions, Santa Fe, who got a bye in the first two rounds and go straight into the competition at this stage.

It would be unwise to base an evaluation of the strength of a country's domestic competition merely on results in the Copa Sudamericana. It is a second string competition, with very little of the prestige of the Copa Libertadores, the continent's Champions League. One of the main objectives of the Sudamericana is to give international experience and exposure to clubs who lack tradition. In itself, then, the strong showing of the Colombians in this year's Sudamericana is not especially relevant.

But it fits into a pattern. Because Colombia currently hold both South American club crowns. Santa Fe of Bogota won last year's Sudamericana, and some two months ago, in one of the most impressive campaigns in the competition's recent history, Atletico Nacional of Medellin won the Libertadores. The Colombians, then, are establishing themselves as a major continental force.

This, perhaps, is only to be expected. True, in relative terms Colombia was late to establish a professional league -- in the late 1940s, some time after the more traditional footballing nations to the south. But Colombian football has some obvious advantages to call on. Outside Brazil, it is the country with the largest population in South America.

Unlike many of its neighbours, it is decentralised, with a number of urban centres -- and football is the game of the city. It has a football-crazy population, with a refined taste for good passing play.

South America shares nine World Cup wins -- five for Brazil, and two each for Uruguay and Argentina. Though Chile are the reigning continental champions, the nation outside the traditional trio most likely to get their hands on the ultimate trophy in the future is Colombia.

That, though, is for the long term. Over the next two weeks, Santa Fe, Atletico Nacional, Independiente Medellin and Junior of Barranquilla will be trying to book their places in the quarterfinals of the Copa Sudamericana.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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