Copa Libertadores Final: A watershed moment for South American football in the UK?

Published

Credit: Sky

Max Ferguson
Sports Editor

Flamengo v River Plate in Peru’s Estadio Monumental

Unless you are a disciple of the church of Jonathan Wilson, a subscriber to Copa90, or a football obsessive like myself, South American football will seem a million miles away from the slick production of the Premier League.

Cruyffian football, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and their ilk are all familiar names and brands of football in Europe, but in South America the game is tenacious, passionate and raucous. You only have to look back at last year’s Libertadores final between the arch-rivals of Buenos Aires, River Plate and Boca Juniors, the aptly named Supaclasico as if it’s some kind of dig at El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, to understand the love and passion that South America holds for the beautiful game.

As in Europe we are equally as obsessed with football. From August to May, and even in the summers during the European Championships and World Cup, we gorge on football. Even during the actual off-season, we as fans are still given transfer speculation and news to slake our football thirst and fuel the ever-consistent talk around the sport.

With the BBC proudly declaring that they would be broadcasting the 2019 final of the Copa Libertadores, which marks the first time that the tournament will hold a single, one-off final instead of its traditional two-legged format (which was marred by last season’s insanity between the aforementioned teams from Buenos Aires, resulting in a Madrid-based second leg), this feels like a watershed moment for South American football, not only in Britain, but in Europe.

The free-to-air broadcast of the match in Peru’s Estadio Monumental is the first real glimpse many fans of football will get the chance to see of South America’s equivalent of the Champions League. Be it stumbling onto BBC 2 just after tea-time, or scanning television guides and discovering an alternative to Saturday night television, this will satiate football hunger from a Saturday that was full of domestic club football anyway. More eating metaphors if one would like.

The BBC opted for a three-man punditry panel of host Mark Chapman, a familiar face to Arsenal fans Gilberto Silva, and the aforementioned man of which I would very much become a season-ticket holder if it were possible, Jonathan Wilson, to lead the British public in their first overt chance to witness South American club football.

And what an advert for the Copa Libertadores it was. With River Plate emerging from Flamengo’s early pressure, they took the lead after spells of pressing that the Brazilians struggled with, and took the lead 15 minutes in. From there, River repeatedly got in behind Flamengo’s full backs and put them under further pressure, but no further goals were scored until late in the second half. As River Plate made substitutions, replacing their forward line and an injury to defender Milton Casco, Las Gallinas seemed to be on course to retain the Copa Libertadores. Enter Flamengo’s Gabriel Barbosa, an equaliser in the 89th minute was followed by a 90+2 winner before he was sent off three minutes later alongside River’s Exequiel Palacios. Against the run of play Flamengo overcame River Plate and claimed the Copa Libertadores.

Football hipsters and obsessives may well be versed with the ins and outs of the Copa Libertadores. I was certainly aware of the ramifications of last year’s final, but this year’s final felt like a final curtain raise to countries with which we are really only familiar with their national teams at World Cups, and the individuals that move to Europe and become successes.

During the BBC’s half-time coverage, Wilson spoke eloquently about the history of South American club football in a way that was accessible and digestible for viewers. The depth of his knowledge of the beautiful game is well documented in his literary works which, for football fans like myself, feel like a step toward sports history that football has not only been seriously lacking, but a progression out of a literary genre that has often been relegated to biographies from ex-professionals and their own personal stories in the game. Both Wilson, his fellow football authors and South American club football may have finally broken into the collective consciousness of British viewers and football fans alike.

As such, I was wowed at Wilson’s point that of all Brazilian domestic club sides Flamengo have faced under the reign of Portuguese Jorge Jesus, Santos are the only team that play a pressing game, which is why Flamengo endured a tough first-half against River Plate and their high intensity pressing game.

Perhaps I’m gushing at the fact that both Gilberto Silva and Jonathan Wilson were on domestic television covering a fixture that most Britons know very little about. I’ve read several of Wilson’s books and, as an Arsenal fan, seeing Gilberto Silva made me miss and appreciate his time in the red side of North London.

Football allegiances aside, the fact that South American football has been broadcast in the UK is a huge step forward. In the current age of YouTube highlights from the domestic leagues of Europe, and continental coverage on both BT Sport and Sky Sports, South American club football has often felt like a niche market that only the hardcore or football obsessives would actively seek out and consume. After Saturday night’s match, however, sandwiched after Football Focus-Final Score and coming before Match of the Day/Sportscene, the game was broadcast in glorious technicolour and South American flair for all of the United Kingdom.