In these times when Brazil dominates the Copa Libertadores, it is easy to forget that for years the country did not consider competition a priority. There were a few seasons in the late 1960s when Brazil didn’t even do a team, and for a long time after that, domestic considerations were considered more important.
This began to change in the early 1990s, when under coach Tele Santana, a glamorous side from Sao Paulo won two Libertadores titles in a row and came close to a third. Since then, Sao Paulo has had a special bond with the Libertadores and early this year coach Rogerio Ceni, a club goalscorer legend, announced that the priority was to qualify for the 2023 edition.
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There are three routes available. One is by finishing high enough in the league. This looks problematic. Sao Paulo sits 14th and is currently closer to the relegation zone than the Libertadores slots. Even more problematic is the Brazilian Cup, where the winners make it to the competition. Sao Paulo is still at that stage in the semi-finals, but lost the first leg at home 3-1 to the mighty Flamengo, and will need something very special next week to make it through that route.
So the best option is to win the Copa Sudamericana, the second continental tournament. And that dream is still alive – but only just. Sao Paulo is through to the final after beating fellow Brazilian Atletico Goianiense on penalties. Deep in Brazil’s relegation zone, Atletico made it clear that their priority is first-division survival when they sacked coach Jorginho on the eve of the first leg. Under Eduardo Baptista, they won a morale winning 3-1 at home on a night when nothing went right for Sao Paulo.
For the return leg at Morumbi Stadium, Rogerio Ceni made four changes, leaving his back three and looking to flush players forward in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Midfielder Partic scored with the team’s first strike and added another just after the hour. But then there were few chances but half chances, and long before the end a penalty shoot-out loomed as an inevitability. In the previous round, Sao Paulo needed a shootout to get past the Brazilian opposition — in this case Ceara — and now they did it again, keeping their spirits up when two Atletico players missed the target.
And so, with a title and a place in next year’s Libertadores at stake, Sao Paulo marches through to the final in Cordoba, Argentina, on October 1. Their opponents are the first non-Brazilian team to advance to a two-year continental final — Ecuador’s remarkable Independiente del Valle.
Independiente del Valle’s route to the decider was greatly facilitated by some shocking defeats for Brazilian teams – both on penalties. Santos fell surprisingly to Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela, and equally unexpected was the elimination of Internacional by Melgar of Peru. All Independiente del Valle had to do was beat these two sides, which they did, at home and away.
Their semi-final was nowhere near, with Melgar beating 3-0 in both legs. Libertadores finalists in 2016, Independiente del Valle won the Sudamericana three years later and is the reigning champion of Ecuador. Their story is truly an extraordinary story. A small club from the outskirts of Quito, which was acquired by investors some 15 years ago with the idea of developing players and then transferring them. The most notable midfielder to date has been Moises Caicedo, in such stellar form at the start of the season at Brighton.
Gradually, the club understood, somewhat to their surprise, that in addition to producing and transferring players, it might also be possible to compete for titles. However, there is no doubt about the priority. After winning the Ecuadorian title last year, almost all important youngsters were transferred. This year, teenage center back Joel Ordonez made a good impression. But after less than 10 games, he moved to Club Brugge of Belgium.
The current side is something of a departure. While the club waits for the next generation of youngsters to be ready, the starting line-up is filled with experience, with a number of players from Argentina – both to help the youngsters move in, and also to coax the club into the moment of transition.
But in addition to the outstanding development of their youth, Independiente del Valle also has a keen eye for the market – Argentine midfielder Lorenzo Faravelli is a midfielder with fine technique and intelligence who has become the heartbeat of the squad. And now Faravelli and his teammates are the mouse that just keeps on roaring, the small club from Ecuador standing between Sao Paulo and their dreams of another international title and a place in next year’s Libertadores.