Champions League. The place where the richest and biggest clubs in the world dispute the most important trophy of the season. Home of superstars, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar. Multi-millionaire prizes, amazing arenas, people from all over the globe watching, and foreigners paying a lot of money for the best seats.
But we should ask a question: Where is the real love for football in this competition?
Apart from a few clubs, especially from the United Kingdom and Eastern European countries, the Champions League is much more of a business rather than true passion. Of course, football-wise, it is a championship that gathers simply the best, but in terms of atmosphere, oh my god, we can’t even compare it with Copa Libertadores.
From Chile to Venezuela, South America is the continent if you expect to see what real football is about. And Copa Libertadores es obsesión. The tournament is organized by Conmebol and it happens throughout the year, where the best clubs compete to win a ticket to the World Cup of Clubs. In 2018, for instance, all the big ones are competing: Boca Juniors, River Plate, Corinthians, Palmeiras, Nacional, Peñarol, Colo-Colo, Cerro Porteño, among others.
Here, the best talents show up to the world and generally, are sold to the big ones in Europe for millions of euros. But we don’t want to talk about the money that involves football, but yes, the atmosphere when we South Americans feel when our club plays on a Wednesday night of Copa Libertadores.
Huge flags, flares, fireworks, pyros, and pack stadiums chanting for their clubs is a must. We are allowed by Conmebol to bring almost everything to make the party in the stands the most beautiful one. Forget the European scarfs, people either dress up with the whole kit or take off the shirt and show to the world their tattoos. Drums, barbecue, beer, party and football. That what is about. Here, can do things differently from when we play at our own leagues.
In most of the matches, the number of red cards equals the total goals, you can see dogs and other animals running from the stands towards the field in the middle of the game, players having to breathe through oxygen masks due to the high altitude of some countries, fights between players and supporters, ultras using pepper spray against the opposite team when they line up in the tunnel before the match even started, and the home team shutting down all the lights of the stadium when the club is losing an important match. This is Copa Libertadores.
Stories like these are just an example to prove why our competition is bigger than the Champions League.
Competing for a place in the quarterfinals for the most important tournament in South America, at La Bombonera, the game got was suspended after players from the River Plate were hit by pepper spray at the return of the break time, which left a suspenseful mood for over an hour until the refereeing trio stopped the match. Of course, Boca fans were the main responsible for that. In the same match, in the midst of all the confusion, a drone appeared flying over the field with a tease to the River, displaying a Series B ghost!
After a week, Conmebol banned Boca Juniors from this Libertadores and sent River Plate for the next round. In the end, they became champions that year.
I don’t know if it is something with the Argentinians, but they have some kind of mystic regarding the tournament. Boca Juniors, when they play at La Bombonera, there are two main entrance gates (away and home). And guess what? The away is meant to be the in the exact size of a regular bus, so the opponents feel it smaller when they arrive to play there. Also, when they go to the changing rooms, they are obligated to pass by the glass where Boca’s players are warming up. Then, the facility is just below the famous ultras La 12, so that means you have to put your kit while the supporters jump and make an earthquake noise above you.
Because the continent is so big, logistics turns into a nightmare for the clubs. Once, when Atlético Tucumán, a small Argentinian club went to Ecuador to play against El Nacional, things got messy. They were making the preparation of the match in Quito, in order to get used to the 2,8000 altitudes. Their flight, in the same day as the match, obviously got delayed (in South America this is almost a must), and only 19 players went on board because of “lack of documents” (Very common here. The authorities didn’t let everybody departure with some bulls*** excuse). They arrived 1:30 late for the game and without any kit (boots, jerseys), as all of them got stuck in the airport. They got very lucky because the Under 20 South American League was held in the same city, and because they have the same colours as the National team, they borrowed (!) from them to play the match. Unbelievable, they won the game and went to the next round!
I can be here talking for days about Copa Libertadores. Wednesday night is a must. It is the day you gathered your friends in a tasty barbecue and get ready for a war. Home games, just full of tension.
It is louder. It is pure passion. There is nothing to compare. You just have to feel it.
Copa Libertadores, I love you.