The (un)popularity of South America’s UEFA Cup

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Here in South America we have our own version of the UEFA Cup. It’s called the Copa Sul-americana – or Sudamericana, in Spanish, Conmebol’s official language – and this year its seventh annual competition started exactly a month ago, with the clash between River Plate and Universidad Catolica. 

Never heard of it? No problema, amigo. It’s far from being a big hit. While the Copa Libertadores rocks the continent during the first semester, the Copa Sudamericana kind of stirs it in the second. In Brazil, no one gives a damn about it, especially the big boys. And why is that?

First of all, it doesn’t have the prestige. Conmebol (the South American Football Confederation) has been trying to built a solid sidekick tournament for decades: Copa Mercosur, Copa Conmebol, the list goes on. But they never click, despite usually offering a good prize from the sponsors. Footballing-wise, it’s worth nothing.

There’s also the issue with the calendar – in Brazil, the Sudamericana takes place when the championship enters its most decisive time of the season. You can’t ship your team off to Mexico on a Wednesday if there’s a city derby on Sunday. So most of the coaches field the reserves – which isn’t enough to go far in the tournament.

In fact, in the championship’s first year, 2002, Brazilian clubs simply chose not to play, claiming a lack of available dates.

So, in order to squeeze itself into the 28 teams’ tight second semester schedule, the Copa Sudamericana becomes an ogre. Palmeiras and Vasco played their first leg two weeks ago on August 13. But the return match won’t be contested until three weeks from now – on September 17.

Yesterday, São Paulo and Atlético-MG were kicked out of the tournament by Atlético-PR and Botafogo respectively. Meanwhile, some squads, like Chile’s Ñublense and Peru’s Sport Ancash, have yet to play a game – they’ll play their games on September 4 and 19. It’s hard to keep track of it all.

So what to do? All this nonsense would be tolerated by the fans if winning the Sudamericana actually meant something. That’s why there’s a general claim that the tournament champion should be awarded a Copa Libertadores spot. However, so far, the Conmebol has reacted with indifference to the request.

In response, the fans don't bother turning up. Little more than 3,000 souls witnessed a comatose game between São Paulo and Atlético-PR reserves yesterday at Morumbi.

Sure, the Sudamericana will get hotter in the latter stages– as any badminton tournament does. To the small sides of the small countries, the Sudamericana might as well be the World Cup. However, if Conmebol wants this championship to have half of the respect the UEFA Cup has, they should listen to the big boys.

PS: Sometimes, even an ogre can be beautiful, as princess Fiona knows so well. Late, late on Wednesday, I was channel-hopping with the remote control when I discovered a live broadcast of the San Luis and Deportivo Quito clash in the Copa Sudamericana.

By sheer inertia, I carried on watching, just in time to watch live this Braulio Luna stunner.