Coming just days before this year’s Copa America kicked off, the announcement of the Americas Superclasico, or alternatively the Dr. Nicolás Leoz Cup (named after the CONMEBOL president), managed to dodge under the media’s radar.
While South America’s nations limbered up, together with a few invitees, to dispute regional seniority, the new yearly fixture between Brazil and Argentina, taking the form of a home and away leg (Sept. 14 and 28) with only locally-based players involved, went largely unnoticed.
Going on to win the Copa America and with two World Cups of their own, Uruguay might well have something to say about South America’s soccer hierarchy right now, but papering over the sizeable cracks that both have displayed in more recent years (in particular the versions that appeared during the Copa America), Brazil versus Argentina is a clash of South America’s two biggest teams.
Between them they have won seven world cups and 11 youth world cups, and their players are amongst the most sought after on world transfer market. One study by marketing company Euroamericas put the combined figure of players sold in 2010 at 3,159, with Argentina overtaking Brazil for the first time as the world’s number one exporter of soccer players.
It was precisely the desire to improve trade that moved Julio Roca, the Argentina president at the turn of the 20th century, to propose the idea of the Cup in order to improve and develop relations between the two countries. Lending his name to the fixture, the Copa Roca was first played in 1914.
The competition was played intermittently until 1976. The 1957 match in Rio de Janeiro stands out, as a 16-year-old made his debut for the Brazil national team. He scored in his first appearance but was on the end of a 2-1 defeat. Twelve years later, in the same stadium, Pele would convert a penalty for his 1000th career goal.
The resurrection of the Cup comes at a time when Brazil are looking for competition. As hosts of the 2014 World Cup they avoid arduous trips to altitude and traveling the considerable length and breadth of the continent in order to qualify, but at the same time, they have no competitive fixtures to prepare the team.
In the case of Argentina, in recent years the number of internationals with locally based players has increased to the point that Martin Palermo was the joint top scorer in the Maradona era (along with Gonzalo Higuain). Palermo scored against Peru in the World Cup qualifier,s helping Argentina make it to South Africa (pedants point out he was offside), and also versus Greece at the World Cup. But other victims included Jamaica (ranked 43rd in the world), Haiti (116th) and a Ghana B side.
Under Sergio Batista there was the full national team, a locally-based national team and a third side, made up of Argentine players under the age of 25 based in Europe.
The dizzying number of ‘national teams’ made the local audience somewhat skeptical about the value of these matches. But playing Brazil brings out the patriot in Argentine supporters, and vice versa, while also providing something of a litmus test for the level of the two leagues.
Because while Uruguay can argue their claim to seniority on the national team level, on a club level, no such debate exists. In the last 10 years, the Copa Libertadores has been won four times by Brazilian clubs (Santos, Sao Paulo and Internacional twice) and on three occasions by Argentine clubs (Estudiantes and Boca Juniors twice). Paraguay (Olimpia), Ecuador (Liga de Quito) and Colombia (Once Caldas) each broke the hegemony once.
So it is an opportunity to see how the two strongest South American leagues fare against each other. Uruguayan forward Sebastian Abreu, who plays in Brazil, told FIFA.com this week that he thinks European football "is a bit overrated," adding "Europe’s not the whole continent. It’s England, Spain, Italy … and you can stop there. In footballing terms Brazil is much stronger than a lot of European teams and is up there with Italy, but it doesn’t get the same recognition because it’s not in the ‘first world’."
Certainly on a financial level, Brazil is beginning to battle with the European leagues. Two of the players Mano Menezes will include in his side represent the effect of the fresh television and sponsorship money flooding into the Brazilian game.
Returning to his country at the age of just 30, still with a number of years of his career ahead of him, reports put Ronaldinho’s wages at Flamengo at over $600,000 per month. Similarly, Santos have been able to hold out on enormous offers for their star pair of Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso. The same goes for Internacional and their prolific striker Leandro Damiao.
"Is Ronaldinho shining at Flamengo because he has rediscovered his magnificent technique and physique," asked the 1970s World Cup winner Tostao in a recent Folha de São Paulo column, "or is the technical level of Brazilian teams low? I’m not sure."
Perhaps the World Club Championship is the only true test of South American club football against its European counterpart. Although he came within a minute of defeating Barcelona as Estudiantes coach in 2009, the new Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella is aware of the gulf in quality between the two.
"You have to consider the parameters," Sabella said on radio La Red when asked about judging players based in Argentina in this game. "I was an excellent player for the Argentine league, but abroad I was an average footballer. You have to take this into account."
Sabella is wary of the state of Argentine football. No sooner does the talent emerge, players are invariably sold. Where Santos can resist reported offers for Neymar in the region of over $60 million, Velez Sarsfield, the reigning Argentine champions could not turn down a $16 million offer from Inter Milan for Ricky Alvarez. River Plate were in a similar situation when a slightly higher offer arrived from Roma for Erik Lamela.
Argentine clubs rely on transfers and have only in the past two years, under a new television deal, seen an increase in alternative sources of income. This in part explains the country overtaking Brazil in selling players, but is also a problem for the quality of the local game.
As such, Brazil must be considered favorites for this game. Along with the formidable front three of Ronaldinho, Neymar and Damiao are, in particular, the exciting prospects of the U20 World Cup winners Danilo, Lucas, Casemiro and Oscar.
Realistically there are few players Sabella will consider for the World Cup qualifiers in his squad, especially having been deprived of two important players for this fixture, players who would add quality and experience to the team. Both Juan Sebastian Veron and Juan Roman Riquelme were forced to drop out with injuries.
Yet with a lack of options in defense, Jonathan Bottinelli and Emiliano Papa are well placed to move up the pecking order if they perform well against Brazil, while Velez midfielder Augusto Fernandez could also enter Sabella’s thinking for the World Cup qualifiers with a strong performance.
SQUADS: 2011 DR. NICOLAS LEOZ CUP
Marcelo Barovero (Velez Sarafield)
Jonathan Bottinelli (San Lorenzo)
Agustin Orion (Boca Juniors) Defenders
Christian Cellay (Estudiantes)
Leandro Desabato (Estudiantes)
Sebastian Dominguez (Velez Sarafield)
Emiliano Papa (Velez Sarsfield)
Clemente Rodriguez (Boca Juniors)
Ivan Pillud (Racing)
German Re (Estudiantes) Midfielders
Hector Canteros (Velez Sarafield)
Luis Castro (Racing)
Cristian Chavez (Boca Juniors)
Augusto Fernandez (Velez Sarafield)
Agustin Pelletieri (Racing)
Diego Villar (Godoy Cruz)
Victor Zapata (Velez Sarsfield) Forwards
Mauro Boselli (Estudiantes)
Emanuel Gigliotti (San Lorenzo)
Juan Manuel Martinez (Velez Sarsfield)
Diego Morales (Tigre)
Pablo Mouche (Boca Juniors)
Victor (Gremio) Defenders
Bruno Cortes (Botafogo)
Dede (Vasco de Gama)
Rever (Atletico Mineiro)
Rhodolfo (Sao Paulo) Midfielders
Renato Abreu (Flamengo)
Casemiro (Sao Paulo)
Cicero (Sao Paulo)
Lucas Moura (Sao Paulo)
Thiago Neves (Flamengo)
Romulo (Vasco de Gama) Forwards
Leandro Damiao (Internacional)