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Feb 12, 2009

Anyone can claim Copa glory

South America's footballing year is slowly rumbling into life, with most countries' league campaigns having started and the Brazilian state championships well underway. The event taking centre stage this week, though, is the continent's showpiece: with the qualifiers over, Tuesday night saw the first balls kicked in the group stages of the 2009 Copa Libertadores de América.

Although early to get a championship underway for their national sides (the Copa América was first played in 1916), the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol, who go by the cumbersome acronym CONMEBOL (occasionally CSF), were slower in organising an equivalent for club sides.

There was an unofficial event held in Santiago de Chile in 1948, but kickstarting the Copa proper took the intervention of UEFA, whose then-president Pierre Delaunay issued a challenge to CONMEBOL in the late '50s to pit the champions of the two continents against one another to decide the 'world champions' of the club game.

That fixture became the Intercontinental Cup (now the World Club Cup), and was enough motivation for CONMEBOL to officially organise the Copa Campeones de América, first played in 1960. It featured just seven teams - Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador didn't enter their champions - but the tournament grew rapidly and was renamed the Copa Libertadores de América in 1965, by which time the league runners-up were also invited.

As in the international game, where their side claimed the first World Cup, Uruguay were the pioneers, with giants Peñarol claiming the first two titles before Brazil claimed the trophy through the legendary Santos of Pelé, Coutinho et al in 1962 and '63. After back-to-back wins for Independiente of Argentina (whose seven titles remains the record), Peñarol won again in 1966. The early years saw one record which has stood throughout the tournament's history: the Uruguayan side's legendary Ecuadorian Alberto Spencer is still the Copa's all-time highest goalscorer, with 54 strikes.

The 50th edition of the tournament is a larger beast. Including qualifying rounds, it sees 38 sides competing, 32 in the group stage. For the last eleven years Mexican clubs have been invited too. They've justified that inclusion in recent years - Mexico has provided a semi-finalist in three of the last four seasons and Cruz Azul lost the 2001 final on penalties to Boca Juniors - and it may be a matter of when, rather than if, a Mexican side will win it.

Format-wise it's similar to the European Champions League, but a more condensed timescale gets through the groups more quickly. Away goals have only counted for the last few seasons and aren't used in the two-legged final (which unlike earlier rounds does have an extra thirty minutes prior to the penalty shootout if aggregate scores are level... confused yet?).

Those variations don't prevent an enjoyable tournament. Economic instability in the continent along with the tendency of European clubs to take promising players from the top teams mean the Copa is still anyone's to win, as Liga de Quito memorably proved last year when becoming the first Ecuadorian side to claim the crown.

Liga, a more attacking side than they suggested in the Club World Cup, knocked out two Argentine contenders before proving against Club América de México (a side not unaccustomed to playing at altitude) in the semis that their game was about more than just beating sea-level-dwellers up in Quito, before seeing off fellow debutant-finalists Fluminense to claim the cup.

In 2007 Cúcuta Deportivo, playing in their first Copa only two seasons after winning promotion from the Colombian second division, had reached a semi-final against a Juan Román Riquelme-inspired Boca Juniors who wondered what had hit them as their hosts won the first leg 3-1. Boca broke the minnows' hearts with a 3-0 win in unbelievably thick fog back in Buenos Aires.

Cúcuta's run that year was a case of what might have been (they'd played and beaten losing finalists Grêmio in the group stage), but it illustrated the capacity of the Copa to provide a shock, and was echoed a year later by Liga's run all the way to the title.

Given this propensity for the tournament to surprise, the closest to a guarantee for any of the big names is that Argentina's River Plate will be eliminated in a manner that everyone who doesn't support them finds absolutely hilarious (lest anyone accuse me of sticking the knife in, I should admit at this juncture that River are the Argentine team closest to my own affections). Last season they were one aggregate goal up over rivals San Lorenzo, who had had two men sent off, with half an hour left of the second leg - yet still River managed to lose after an amazing comeback from the nine-man visitors.

Riquelme's Boca, who with six Copas are just one behind the record of their compatriots Independiente, and Brazilian giants São Paulo, whose 2008 league title makes them the first club to be crowned Brazilian champions three years running, will begin as favourites. Estudiantes de La Plata, the first club to win the Copa three times running between 1968 and 1970, are also worth keeping an eye on - they include reigning South American Footballer Of The Year Seba Verón in their ranks.

Other contenders could be beaten 2007 finalists Grêmio who, after seeing their cross-city rivals Internacional claim the trophy in 2006, will want to add to their own tally of two Copas; or Lanús, one of the revelations of recent years in Argentina, strong in the league for a few seasons now and whose team, mainly made up of youngsters from the youth system, may be reaching just the right level of experience this time round.

Just as likely, as Liga demonstrated last year and Cúcuta almost did the season before, is that a totally unheralded club will lift the trophy. That's the beauty of the Copa Libertadores - it's not without its faults, but it is a competition in which quite literally any team can beat any other.

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