The Copa Libertadores final to stall Brazil and Argentina's stranglehold

For the first time in 25 years, the final of the Copa Libertadores will not feature a team from Brazil or Argentina. Instead, Atletico Nacional of Colombia will contest the trophy over two legs with Ecuador's Independiente del Valle.


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It may well be nothing more than co-incidence, but the last two times the title did not go to a representative from one of the big two countries, it went to Ecuador (LDU of Quito won in 2008) and Colombia (whose Once Caldas had been victorious four years earlier).

The presence of Atletico Nacional in the final is not a giant surprise. They are a big, well structured club, champions in 1989 and quarter-finalists two years ago. 

Much harder to predict has been the remarkable story of tiny Independiente del Valle, who ten years ago were still playing in the Ecuadorian third division. 

From the outskirts of the capital, Quito, they have a ramshackle stadium, which holds a few more than 7000 fans.

While they have been in the top flight since 2010, they have never won the domestic league title – a similarity shared with Sao Caetano of Brazil, who rose from nowhere to reach the final of the Copa Libertadores in 2002, when they were only beaten on a penalty shootout.

After a few years of prominence, Sao Caetano have slumped. They are currently not taking part in any of the four national divisions of Brazilian football. 

It will be intriguing to see how Independiente can follow up their feat in this year’s Copa Libertadores – which still holds out the chance of a title win and a FIFA World Club Cup meeting with Real Madrid.

A win would round off a perfect year for a club who have already gone into some of the biggest, most daunting stadiums in South America and come away, eliminating rivals who are rich in tradition. 

They made it out of the group stage thanks to a heroic goalless draw away to Colo Colo, Chile’s biggest club. Then came a 1-0 defeat in Buenos Aires’ Monumental stadium against last year’s champions, River Plate of Argentina – good enough to take them through 2-1 on aggregate. 

In the quarter-finals, they were down to ten men away to Pumas of Mexico City, when they needed a goal to force a penalty shootout, and still they came through.

And now comes the biggest scalp - so far.  Six-times champions Boca Juniors of Argentina were beaten home and away, the place in the final clinched with a stunning 3-2 win in the Bonbonera, one of the world’s most iconic and intimidating venues.

Of course, as in the case of Leicester City in last season’s English Premier League, in order for the little club to shine so much, the big clubs must be operating well short of their potential.  

Argentina, in the last years and Brazil before that, have monopolised the Libertadores titles. But anyone who has paid attention to the Club World Cup, will have seen that in recent times the glorious history of these massive South American clubs is in no way matched by the standard of their present day football.
In this era of globalisation, the gap between the club game in Europe and South America has never been bigger. And when the big clubs are struggling, there is a chance for a well-organised small club with good team spirit.

None of this, though, takes away from the achievement of Independiente, who have grabbed their opportunity with a mixture of character and talent. 

The team’s efforts have been backed up by a well applied model. The club seek excellence in their youth development.

Their best graduate so far is international winger Jefferson Montero, currently with Swansea City. The most promising member of the current crop is a teenage successor on the left wing, Bryan Cabezas, who scored in both legs against Boca. 

The youngsters can develop in a largely pressure-free environment. The lack of tradition and mass support is turned into an advantage – there is no need for playing to the gallery with crowd pleasing decisions to sack coaches. 

A Uruguayan, Pablo Repetto, has been in charge for four years. He has brought in a couple of his compatriots to add some steel and experience, and has stuck to an idea of play which is completely in line with the identity established over the last few years by the Ecuador national team.

With Luis Antonio Valencia on the right wing and Montero on the left, Ecuador are a full-back’s nightmare. They break with power, speed and skill – and so do Independiente. 

Season after season, Repetto lines up his side with two speedy wingers and a centralised playmaker, backing up a strong centre forward.  

It means they can defend deep, lure the opponent forward and strike on the break. And the skill of the wingers also gives them the option of planting themselves in the opponent’s half of the field when possible.  

They have won all but one of their seven home games, and have been competitive – never beaten by more than a single goal – in all seven away fixtures. 

Independiente del Valle are in the final of the Libertadores on merit, and it should be fascinating to see whether those merits are enough to overcome an attractive Atletico Nacional side and claim South America’s premier club prize.

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5 min read
Published 16 July 2016 at 8:54pm
By Tim Vickery