Barcelona-Boca Juniors showcases South America's talent, the gap between domestic leagues
It would, of course, be silly to draw conclusions from a single, gentle preseason friendly, disputed by two teams a little short of full strength, and which inevitably turned into a parade of second-half substitutions. Even so, Barcelona's 3-0 win Wednesday over Boca Juniors provides more evidence toward a clear conclusion: how rich South American football is, and how poor the continent's club game has become.
Boca Juniors were not disgraced -- and yet they could have lost by a much wider margin. The gap between the two sides was immense. For all that the Argentines huffed and puffed, they could barely lay a glove on the Catalans -- who, of course, are reinforced by some of the finest that the other side of the Atlantic has to offer.
Barcelona's three goals all came from South Americans. New Brazilian winger Malcom opened his account with a fierce cross-shot. The inevitable Lionel Messi was the one Argentine to hit the target, beating the keeper with a sublime little chip. Followed by another Brazilian, Rafinha, chipping the keeper to complete the scoring, latching on to a wonderful return ball from the pride of Uruguay, Luis Suarez. Barcelona could also count on the midfield thrust of Chile's Arturo Vidal, the Brazilian wizardry of Philippe Coutinho and on his intriguing compatriot Arthur, the young midfielder brought in over the summer as an heir to the tradition of Xavi and Iniesta.
The best South Americans, then, are playing for the Europeans. Boca are among the very strongest clubs in South America -- they are well on the way to booking their place in the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores, the continent's Champions League equivalent, and they are among the favourites to win the title. But in the era of South American football as an export industry, their lineup basically breaks down into three categories: There are veterans winding down their careers after spells in Europe, the likes of Carlos Tevez and Mauro Zarate; there are players on the way up who are probably heading for Europe, like winger Cristian Pavon and Colombian holding midfielder Wilmar Barrios; and there are others in the middle who are not considered good enough to receive the call.
Incidentally, the best news of the afternoon for Boca was the bright performance on the right wing of their new signing from Colombia, Sebastian Villa. More displays like that and he will also put himself in contention for a move across the Atlantic.
The Europeans, then, gather the best talent from the four corners of the globe. And at the moment they also seem far ahead in terms of ideas of play. Barcelona did not only catch the eye with moments of individual brilliance, but also with collective passages of play, namely quick four-man movements which open up space on the field and break the lines of the opposing defence. The South American club game can look hopelessly laboured in comparison -- and there were hints in Boca's performance of what has become a customary fallback position.
In the absence of outstanding ability, increasing emphasis is placed on drive, on will to win, on intimidation and on attempts to win free kicks and penalties by going to ground. If these elements are sufficient to win domestic titles, then few questions are asked. This helps explain why the annual FIFA Club World Cup -- given massive importance in South America -- has become a horror show for the continent. Reality bites not only when the Copa Libertadores champions come up against the Europeans, but also when they meet opponents from other continents and have to battle and scrape their way to victory.
South American football keeps selling the many stars it produces. Europe then takes them and sells the spectacle they produce, and the whole world watches -- while the difference between the domestic games in football's two traditional continents keeps getting wider.