Colon and Independiente del Valle a contrast in styles in Copa Sudamericana final
A new era in South American football kicks off in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion on Saturday, but the momentous change seems very low key.
By tradition, the continent's international club competitions conclude with a two- legged, home and away final. Saturday, Nov. 9, marks the start of the age of a one-off final on a neutral ground.
This marks an important switch. But Saturday's game is flying under the radar. That is partly because it is the final of the Copa Sudamericana -- the second tier of continental competition in South America -- and not the much more high prestige Copa Libertadores.
A couple of extra factors may make it easy to overlook the Sudamericana. The Libertadores hogs all the headlines; both because there has been a late change of venue (from Santiago to Lima) and because it features two of the continent's undisputed giants, River Plate and Flamengo.
The Sudamericana clash, meanwhile, is between two sides who between them have not a single domestic league title. But there is an interesting contrast between Colon of Argentina and Ecuador's Independiente del Valle.
Colon stand for football's traditional virtues. From the provincial city of Santa Fe, they have been around for 114 years, and have spent more than half a century as regular members of Argentina's first division. They are a symbol of football's capacity to make a city -- or that part of it that does not follow rivals Union -- feel represented. Paraguay is much closer to Argentina than to Ecuador, but that is not the only reason that Colon will have many more fans in the stadium.
Independiente del Valle, meanwhile, are not big on mass representation. From the outskirts of Quito, they are a club who were taken over a few years ago with the idea of making money. They have no mass support -- though their success over the last decade has won them some fans and their undisguised objective is to produce players in order to sell them on. Their existence is a product of the rise of the global market in footballers.
Three years ago, Del Valle caused a huge shock by reaching the final of the Libertadores. Almost the entire team were quickly sold and a new generation rapidly promoted. Earlier this year Ecuador were crowned South American Under-20 Champions, with several Independiente players having key roles. They have all been sold, opening the door for the next crop of youth products.
The current Ecuador senior squad features two Independiente players -- versatile midfielder Alan Franco and dynamic striker (who will probably start Saturday's game on the bench) Alejandro Cabeza. They, too, will probably soon be on their way. The club has done wonderfully well in remaining competitive despite constant selling -- a tribute to the quality of the youth development work.
The star man for Colon, meanwhile, is not a youngster on the way up, but a 34-year-old whose story includes so many aspects of South American football. Luis Rodriguez, or "The Flea" as he is usually called, comes from a cocktail of poor background, youth trials with Real Madrid, abandoned by an agent and left to his own devices in Europe, going home and flirting with giving up the game before being coaxed back and enjoying a late burst of well deserved success as an artistic attacking midfielder. If he can help Colon lift their first title, the feat will be much celebrated in Argentina.
Colon will hope their fans can generate enough atmosphere to make them feel at home, because they are historically very strong in their own stadium -- known colloquially as "The Elephants' Graveyard" because of the number of giant teams who have fallen there.
But on Saturday, they are the relative giants and Independiente del Valle are the fearless mouse. They have knocked out some of the biggest names on the continent on their way to this match; in the quarterfinal they overcame Independiente of Argentina. In the semis they humbled Brazilian giants Corinthians with a glorious 2-0 win in Sao Paulo. They will not tremble at the sight of Colon or their supporters.
And so the scene is set for what could turn out to be a minor classic. The venue is the stadium of the Cerro Porteno club, recently rebuilt and referred to as "La Nueva Olla" -- the new pressure cooker. The players will feel the heat -- late Spring in Paraguay can send the temperature rising to uncomfortable heights. The local football authorities will hope that this does not have a negative impact on the quality of the game.
The switch to a one-off final is a controversial move. Distances are vast in South America and travel is expensive. Many are now priced out of the showpiece occasion.
On the other hand, there are commercial advantages. The new, neutral ground final kicks off in a time zone which works for other continents. There are hopes of reaching a European audience, for example. There are also hopes that the new format will provide a better spectacle than the old two-legged deciders. That theory will now be put to the test, as will the clash in styles of the two teams taking part.