Champions League, Latin America style

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While the European powerhouses resume the battle for the Champions League this week, the prize they’re all after is taking a break in Brazil. The big-eared cup was exhibited in São Paulo last weekend, the first stop in its Latin America tour. Next Saturday and Sunday it will melt (well, not literally - it’s always good to make things clear after what we did with the Jules Rimet) in Rio de Janeiro’s 40º C heat. Then it will dash to Argentina, Chile and Mexico.

Watching the wealthy circus created around the symbol of Europe’s world football dominance (at least economic), I couldn’t help comparing it to our own version of the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores da America - which just kicked off its 49th edition with the presence of 36 squads from 11 countries.

If the Champions League is all about elegance, glamour, professionalism and sophistication, South American’s top club continental tournament is exactly the other way around. Brutality, roughness, crudeness and intimidation are words that can describe the core of the Copa Libertadores - which is fitting considering the trophy pays tribute to America’s freedom fighters, those who gave blood to the independence of the continent’s nations.

Instead of maestros with stylish hairdos, backs that seem not having been introduced to razors. Instead of glimmering kits, shirts that makes the fake replicas from the Far East a masterpiece of the haute couture. Instead of newly built, hi-tech stadiums, holes whose pitch should be better used to cattle raising. Instead of charming and centenary sidekicks, never-heard-of squads like Boyacá Chicó, Mineros de Guayana or Sportivo Luqueño.

(And the worst thing is that they even might hurt you - just ask Santos and Boca Juniors, run over by exotic Once Caldas, from Manizales, Colombia, in the road to their extraordinary 2004 Libertadores win.)

The picture that opens this post illustrate how far one must go to conquer America. It was taken by the crew when they travelled to Tacna, Peru, to the first game of Flamengo in this year’s tournament, against newcomer Coronel Bolognesi, proud champion of the 2007 Peruvian Clausura. The sight of a XIX century’s no-man’s land is perfectly finished with the hand-painted sign. It warns: "Captured thieves will be burnt alive."

Yes, it’s a jungle out there. And that’s the beauty of the Libertadores.