Down at the Copa: A Guide to South America’s Big Competitions

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Football may have been introduced to South America by British merchants and sailors, but perhaps nowhere else on Earth has taken to the beautiful game more fervently.

The continent has produced many of the finest players ever to have graced a football pitch from Pele to the most recent superstar in Lionel Messi. Today, most clubs in Europe have made it a habit of poaching young footballers with talent from South America, as they are the type of players who bring something extra, that flair for which countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have become famous.

Nowadays global networks of scouts keep track of the performances of these players in their native leagues, but it is still in the big and prestigious campeonatos de futbol sudamericanos tournaments that most of these players make a name for themselves. At club level, there are competitions like the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana, and at international level, there is the Copa America. All of these tournaments are highly regarded by South Americans football fans who bring their own unique noise, colour, and atmosphere.

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Copa America

The tournament takes place every four years and is the world’s oldest international continental football competition. It crowns the continental champion in the region, with the most recent winner being Chile in 2016. Since 1990, the competition has also featured invited teams from North and Central America, and Asia. For instance, since 1993, Mexico has featured in every tournament. Uruguay, with 5 titles, is the most successful team in the competition’s history.

Copa Libertadores

The Copa Libertadores is the South American version of Europe’s Champions League. South American fans regard the tournament to be one of the most brutal in the entire world, owing to the fact that it is played in the heat of Salvador, the heights of La Paz, and the humidity of the Amazon, not to mention the overnight trips that clubs and supporters have to make to Mexico. Some of the most famous teams in the world first proved their worth in this championship such as Boca Juniors, River Plate, and Santos. The current champions are Brazil’s Gremio while the most successful team is Independiente from Argentina, with 7 titles.

Copa Sudamericana

In Europe, we have two club tournaments held each year: the Europa League and the Champions League. Likewise, in South America. The Copa Sudamericana is the Europa League equivalent, and while it is not universally liked by fans, it is still one of the most prestigious tournaments on the continent. It first began in 2002 with the merging of the Copa Conmebol and Copa Mercosur, and as such, the Copa Libertadores boasts a longer history. The current champion is Argentina’s River Plate. The competition winners gain entry to the following year’s Copa Libertadores.

The competition has not been without tragedy. On November 28, 2016, while travelling to play the first leg of the final against Atlético Nacional, the plane carrying Brazil’s Chapecoense crashed near Medellín, Colombia. All but six of the 77 passengers were killed and only three Chapecoense players survived their injuries. Following the crash, Atlético Nacional made a request to the governing body of the competition, CONMEBOL, that Chapecoense be awarded the trophy. That team has since become known as “The Eternal Champions.”

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