In these times when Brazil dominates the Copa Libertadores, it is easy to forget that for many years the country did not see the competition as a priority. There were a few seasons in the late 1960s when Brazil didn’t even get into a group, and for a long time afterwards domestic considerations were considered more important.
That began to change in the early 1990s, when under coach Tele Santana a glittering São Paulo team won two Libertadores titles in a row and came close to a third. Since then, Sao Paulo have had a special relationship with the Libertadores and at the start of this year, manager Rogerio Ceni, a legend at the club as a goalkeeper, announced that the priority was to qualify for the 2023 edition.
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Three routes are available. One is to finish high enough in the league. This seems problematic. Sao Paulo are in 14th place and are currently closer to the relegation zone than the Libertadores positions. Even more problematic is the Brazilian Cup, where the winners advance to the competition. Sao Paulo are still in the semi-finals at this stage — but they lost the first leg 3-1 at home to mighty Flamengo and need something very special next week to make it that way.
So the best option is to win the Copa Sudamericana, the second tier continental tournament. And that dream is still alive — but only just. Sao Paulo advanced to the final after beating Brazilian side Atletico Goianiense on penalties. Atletico are deep in Brazil’s relegation zone and made it clear their priority is top flight survival when they sacked manager Jorginho on the eve of the first leg. Under Eduardo Baptista, they picked up their morale as they cruised to a 3-1 home win on a night when nothing was going right for Sao Paulo.
For the second leg at the Morumbi Stadium, Rogerio Ceni made four changes, abandoning the back three and looking to flood players forward in a 4-1-4-1 formation. The Partick midfielder scored with the team’s first attack and added another just after the hour mark. But then there were few other than half-chances, and a penalty looked inevitable well before the end. In the previous round, Sao Paulo needed a shot to get past Brazilian opposition — in this case Ceara — and now they did it again, holding their nerve as two Atletico players missed the target.
And so, with the title and a place in next year’s Libertadores at stake, Sao Paulo advance to the final in Córdoba, Argentina, on October 1. Their opponents are the first team from outside Brazil to reach a continental final for two years — the remarkable Independiente del Valle of Ecuador.
Independiente del Valle’s route to the decider was made significantly easier by a couple of shock defeats for the Brazilian sides — both on penalties. Santos fell surprisingly to Deportivo Tahira of Venezuela and just as unexpected was Internacional’s elimination by Peru’s Melgar. All that was left for Independiente del Valle was to beat these two teams, which they did, home and away.
Their semi-final was not very close, with Melgar winning 3-0 over both legs. Libertadores finalists in 2016, Independiente del Valle won the Sudamericana three years later and are Ecuador’s reigning champions. Theirs is a truly amazing story. A tiny club from the outskirts of Quito, it was taken over by investors about fifteen years ago with the idea of developing players for transfer. By far the most notable is midfielder Moises Caicedo, in such superb form at the start of the season with Brighton.
Along the way, somewhat to their surprise, the club realized that in addition to producing and transferring players, they could also compete for titles. There is no doubt, however, as to priority. After Ecuador won the title last year, almost all the 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 in 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 full of experience, with several players coming from Argentina — both to help the youngsters sleep in and to set the club up. the time of transition.
But in addition to the excellence of their youth development, Independiente del Valle also has a shrewd eye for the market — Argentine midfielder Lorenzo Faravelli is a midfielder with great technique and intelligence who has become the heartbeat of the team. And now Faravelli and his teammates are the mouse that keeps roaring, the small Ecuadorian club standing between Sao Paulo and their dreams of another international title and a place in next year’s Libertadores.