It could have been a glorious and triumphant end to the year for Santos, but December removed the shine and gloss from what was – despite the stumble – a sensational year. They were denied their Hollywood ending by rampant Barcelona in the Club World Cup final. Universidad de Chile, meanwhile, finally saw their astonishing record-breaking unbeaten run come to an end in the same month. Both clubs had etched their names on trophies earlier in 2011, yet these blips coming at the end of the year reflected the broader picture of football in South America – success was tinged with disappointment, and where there were titles for great teams, so too was there relegation for great teams.
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Brazilian side Santos won the number one South American club title, the Copa Libertadores. Together with winning the local Paulista championship and making the final of the Club World Cup, it was another important year in the club’s rich history.
Santos captured the imagination in 2011 in part because they boasted the continent’s undisputed star – Neymar. South American football can struggle for headlines in the foreign sports papers, that is until European sides are linked with the latest teenage prodigy. Neymar fits the bill perfectly. By the end of 2011 he hit 99 career goals, still aged just 19. With his explosive skills and his eccentric hair, the speculation was relentless.
Chelsea were keen. At one point Real Madrid were reported to have signed him. Barcelona also wanted him. But then he put pen to paper on a stunning contract with Santos, reportedly now earning over $700,000 a month. The idea is that he will stay in Brazil until 2014, becoming the poster boy for the forthcoming World Cup in the process. Yet still the speculation didn’t stop. Days after facing Barcelona, Santos officially denied having sold ‘priority’ rights to the Catalans. The Neymar soap opera looks set to rival even the biggest-budget telenovela for some time yet.
More tangible than speculation, or even the astronomic wages being discussed, was the spectacular win in the Copa Libertadores. Santos beat Uruguayan side Peñarol in a re-run of the 1962 Libertadores final. Back then it was Pelé leading the Santos line. This year it was Neymar, with six goals in the competition, along with the vision of Paolo Henrique Ganso who led the attack in an excellent Santos side, with Elano, Arouca and Danilo also shining.
Yet while one historic club were writing another heroic chapter in their history, another was plunging to unknown depths. On the very same night that Santos won the Libertadores for the third time, defeating Peñarol in the second leg, Argentine side River Plate lost the first leg of their relegation playoff to Belgrano de Córdoba, 2-0. Only managing a 1-1 draw back at the Monumental, the club with most league titles in Argentina – 33 – were relegated for the first time in their 110-year history.
With River Plate in the second division, their fierce rivals Boca Juniors – the club that won four Libertadores in the 2000s – read the script perfectly, getting their house in order just in time to end three years without a title and win the Apertura 2011, made all the sweeter seeing the millonarios in the second tier.
Yet River were not alone. Six months after they dropped down a division, América de Cali suffered the same fate, losing their relegation playoff with Patriotas on penalties. The 13-time Colombian champions were relegated for the first time in their 84-year history.
Whereas River and América de Cali tarnished their history, La Universidad de Chile were reproducing their stunning league form in the Copa Sudamericana. Under the instructions of Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli – who readily speaks of the influence of Marcelo Bielsa – La U were not just unbeatable, they were untouchable. In 12 games in the Sudamericana, they conceded just two goals, winning 10 matches and drawing two as they won the club’s first ever international trophy. In Eduardo Vargas, they had the tournament’s top scorer – indeed, the tournament’s highest scorer since it started in 2002. Vargas hit 11 goals, earning him a move to Europe no sooner had he taken the winner’s medal from his neck.
Vargas became Napoli’s fourth most expensive signing ever, the Italians parting with $14.7 million for the striker’s services. The exodus from South America continued this year, with the most expensive signings being those of Erik Lamela (River Plate to Roma, $20m), Danilo (Santos to Porto, $18m) and Ricky Alvarez (Vélez to Inter, $18m). Dario Conca’s move from Fluminense in Brazil to China was as unexpected as it was bizarre. Having won the 2010 Brazilian title, named player of the year to boot, Conca signed for Guangzhou Evergrande for $13m. On top of the considerable transfer fee, the diminutive playmaker became one of the highest paid players on the planet, reportedly on a yearly wage in the region of $18 million.
While a new generation of players was emigrating, many of their peers were returning to South America from Europe to represent their country at the Copa America, held in Argentina.
While roundly viewed as a poor tournament, particularly with both the hosts and Brazil underperforming, there were positive points, particularly seeing nations such as Venezuela and Peru vastly improving and suggesting they will be fielding competitive sides in the World Cup qualifiers.
Yet it was Uruguay who provided the story. Humble as ever, the coach Oscar Tabarez dedicated the historic win – Uruguay became the nation to have won the most Copa Americas – to the previous 14 winners. "Without what they did, this would not have been possible," he said after defeating Paraguay in the final held at River Plate’s Monumental.
The truth is that, without Tabarez, the 15th win would not have been possible. He created a formidable side, lining up youth with experience, and developed a strong spirit not just within the squad but within the project of developing Uruguayan football. Nothing demonstrated this more than the players opting not to visit the stadium in Mendoza the day before a group game in order to watch the U-17s play Mexico in the final of the World Cup. The celeste were comfortable and deserved 3-0 winners over Paraguay in the final, and made it a full house with Luis Suarez named player of the tournament, and Sebastian Coates young player of the tournament.