The Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club competition, is to undergo a makeover. In a council meeting on Sunday evening, the continental football confederation Conmebol ratified some drastic changes to the tournament’s rules, namely that it will now take place all-year round (from February to November) and is to be expanded from 38 to 44 teams.
These alterations have an immediate effect on the current Brazilian league season, as with six additional teams in the Copa Libertadores, Brazil (as the continent’s largest financial power) have been offered two extra spots for the 2017 tournament.
Currently, the four best-placed sides in the league plus the winner of the domestic cup gain qualification. The extra two clubs will come from the league, turning the Top Four into the Top Six, breathing more life into an already tightly disputed national championship.
With the rule changes, 10th placed Ponte Preta are in with a shout of Libertadores qualification
These changes, along with the natural competitiveness of the Brazilian league, mean that with only two months left to play, the entire top half can realistically set their sights on Copa Libertadores football in 2017. While the top three sides Palmeiras, Flamengo and Atlético Mineiro have put some distance between themselves and the rest of the league, and Santos and Fluminense appear to be staging a breakaway from the proverbial peloton, there are still only four points between Atlético Paranaense in fifth and 11th placed Chapecoense. With ten games remaining, anything could happen.
The decision to give Brazil a minimum of seven spots (they could potentially have nine, if Brazilian clubs win the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sul-Americana) in this new look tournament has been widely criticised at home and around the continent.
The knee-jerk analysis says that South America’s most important club tournament will be devalued within Brazil, considering that 30% of the first division will now gain qualification. Many are also wondering exactly what Brazilian football has done to deserve these extra places, pointing out that despite being the richest nation on the continent, no clubs from Brazil have made the Libertadores final since 2013. Clearly, this is a purely financial decision.
However, while the extra spots for Brazilian clubs is certainly big news, the most important change agreed upon by Conmebol is to play the Copa Libertadores all year-round. Traditionally, the tournament is crammed into a frantic few months near the middle of the year. A February-November schedule should allow teams more time to develop and consequently lead to better quality football.
Atlético Mineiro were the last Brazilian side to reach a Libertadores final, winning in 2013
In addition, the tournament winner will have much less time between the Libertadores final and the World Club Cup in December. While this may seem like a hindrance, leaving clubs with less time to prepare, it will in fact reduce the risk of these teams losing their best talent to Europe or Asia before the global competition.
Colombian side Atlético Nacional, South America’s representative in the 2016 Club World Cup, have already lost some important players from their Copa Libertadores-winning squad. By December they will not be the same team that became South American champions in July. The new schedule should prevent that.
In Brazil, the debate surrounds how to adapt their packed national calendar to accommodate a year-long Copa Libertadores. The national league will not undergo any changes, but the Copa do Brasil – Brazil’s domestic cup competition – will almost certainly have to be altered. There will be no space for the cup in its current format, with two-legged rounds and a December final.
Either the Copa do Brasil could become one-legged, halving its total length (extremely unlikely), or the teams that qualify for the Copa Libertadores could be kept out of the domestic cup competition (also unlikely), or, in what is the most probable solution, the cup would be brought forward to the first half of the year, having its final in August or September.
Interestingly, this would have a knock-on effect on Brazil’s state championships – the antiquated local tournaments played in the opening months of the football season that serve only to preserve tradition and provide short-lived bragging rights. With this potential new calendar, the country’s big clubs would have the Copa Libertadores and Copa do Brasil to focus on in the first half of the year, meaning the significance of these local competitions would dwindle even further.
The decadence of state football began in the 1990s with the increased importance of continental competitions (and therefore, the national championship, being the only way to qualify for the Copa Libertadores). The trend has continued over the years, with some clubs fielding B teams for state tournaments.
Brazilian state football must be preserved one way or another, its historical significance is too great for it to completely disappear. Due to the jaw-dropping size of the country, Brazilian football was built on local competition instead of anything on a regional or national level. Some of the most important matches in the history of the domestic game have been state championship finals.
However, these tournaments must be reduced and adapted to the needs of the modern Brazilian game. Conmebol’s calendar change could be the last incentive needed to finally correct this problem.