Brazil vs. Argentina final looks on the cards after Copa Libertadores draw
Transfer news aside, international football dominates the headlines this time of year. But in the brief window between friendlies and World Cup qualifiers on one hand, and the start of the Confederations Cup on the other, the South American club game has stolen the limelight.
The draw took place Wednesday night at CONMEBOL HQ in Paraguay for the knockout stages of the Copa Libertadores. The field has been whittled to 16 teams, which will now play home-and-away matches all the way until the continent proclaims its champion at the end of November.
Previously the action was crammed into the first half of the year, overflowing into late July or early August in World Cup years. And previously there was no need for a draw; a team's position in the group phase determined its knockout opponent, with the group winner with the best record facing the runner-up with the worst, and so on.
This time, though, there is more time to pause and hold a party -- one in which CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez can further emphasise how his organisation has changed since the corruption crisis. "Money will never again be the objective," he said. "Football is the objective."
And if the objective is to help ensure that the Libertadores does not end in a final between two clubs of the same country, then the draw has been kind. Four of the last 16 teams are from Argentina. Six are from Brazil. And the way things have panned out, a final between Brazilian and Argentine sides might well be the most likely outcome.
There are no draws for the quarterfinals, semifinals or final. These stages have already been arranged, and it is possible to plot the path each team must take to reach the final. As is the case with all such draws, the teams essentially divide into two halves, with the winner of each meeting to dispute the title. And it is striking that one half of the draw has three clubs from Argentina and just one from Brazil, while the other has five Brazilians and a lone Argentine. So the only way that there can be an all-Brazilian final would be for Atletico Mineiro, off to a terrible start in the domestic league, to fight their way through three rounds. And the only way there can be an all-Argentina final is if modest Godoy Cruz do the same -- and they must begin by eliminating in-form Gremio in the only Brazil-Argentina clash of the coming round.
The Argentines clearly feel themselves at a disadvantage because of the calendar. The first-leg matches in this second round take place at the start of July, with the return matches happening, strangely, over a month later. Club football in Brazil keeps going all the way through July, while Argentina takes a break. Argentina's clubs, then, will be at the very end of their season for the first leg, and short of match practice for the second. They have been trying to move behind the scenes to change the dates. More likely, perhaps, is a switch in the future to a competition that follows the European calendar, starting in August, breaking for the South American high summer in January and coming to a conclusion in May. An obvious problem with the February-to-November model is that the global transfer window opens just as the Libertadores reaches the decisive stages. Some of the stars of the group phase could be whisked away.
The draw is as follows. On one side:
Guarani (Paraguay) vs. River Plate (Argentina)
Jorge Wilstermann (Bolivia) vs. Atletico Mineiro (Brazil)
Emelec (Ecuador ) vs. San Lorenzo (Argentina)
The Strongest (Bolivia) vs. Lanus (Argentina)
And on the other side:
Atletico Paranaense (Brazil) vs. Santos (Brazil)
Nacional (Uruguay) vs. Botafogo (Brazil)
Godoy Cruz (Argentina) vs. Gremio (Brazil)
Barcelona (Ecuador) vs. Palmeiras (Brazil)
The first-named clubs are at home in the first leg (July 2-5) and away in the return game (Aug. 8-10).
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.