It may have come after a penalty shoot-out, but even so, it was a result that South American football badly needed. In the Copa Sudamericana, Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela eliminated Santos of Brazil to qualify for the quarterfinals. True, this is not quite the Santos squads that featured Pele in the 1960s, who were probably the best side in the world at the time. But they are still a strong team.
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Santos have excelled in youth development — and in the likes of striker Marcos Leonardo, winger Angelo, midfielders Sandry and Vinicius Zanocelo and defender Kaiky, the current team is loaded with promise. Santos were overwhelming favorites to qualify, and badly wanted to make progress in the competition. During the penalty shootout, manager Fabian Bustos could not even bring himself to watch as his side lost.
The Tachira players celebrated wildly at the end, and many around South America will celebrate with them. They have done a little bit to reduce the domination of Brazilian sides which is starting to become a problem for South American club competitions. The quarterfinals of the main event, the Copa Libertadores, will be entirely restricted to teams from Brazil and Argentina.
The second round of the Sudamericana has managed to spread things round more evenly. All ten countries had at least one representative. But Brazil are dominant once more. There is the certainty of two Brazilian teams in the last eight, the near certainty of three and the possibility of four — and Santos were on the cusp of advancing. No other country will have more than one quarterfinalist.
This gap between Brazil and the rest is only likely to get bigger. Brazilian clubs are now opening up to foreign capital, and their scouting work around the continent has improved massively. Boca Juniors, for example, were very keen on bringing Arturo Vidal back to South America, only to see Flamengo swoop in for the Chilean star. There was no way that Boca could compete.
Any rise in the standard of the domestic Brazilian game is to be applauded. But the disparity is starting to create a problem. Can the Libertadores retain its prestige if, as would surely seem to be the case this year, it is little more than an alternative version of the Brazilian Cup? And matters are surely not improved by a Brazilian domination of the Sudamericana.
In this context, then, the triumph of Tachira over Santos is a tiny victory for competitive balance. Tachira narrowly failed to make the last-16 of last year’s Libertadores, and only fell a point short this year — though conceding 14 goals in six games is clearly cause for concern. They lost 4-0 and 4-1 to Palmeiras, went down 4-1 at home to Emelec of Ecuador and picked up almost all their points against the very weak Bolivian debutants Independiente Petrolero.
Coming third in the group won them a place in the second round of the Sudamericana — but when they drew Santos, few gave them much hope of progressing. Instead, they were never behind in the tie. Both games finished 1-1 and both times the Venezuelans took the lead. Santos snatched a late equalizer in the first game, and managed to draw themselves level with twenty minutes to go in front of their own fans, but by this time they were already down to ten men, and Tachira were able to hold on for the shoot -out — where young keeper Christopher Varela excelled.
Most of his teammates are experienced players, some of whom have played abroad. There is only one other starter under 25 — teenage attacking midfielder Yerson Chacon, the son of a former club stalwart, who is frail in physique but full of interesting ideas. Chacon is an example of the success of youth development in Venezuelan football over the last few years. But the simple economics of the situation means that he is unlikely to stay at home for long. His path could be something similar to that of winger Yeferson Soteldo, who first went to Chile before enjoying a splendid spell in Brazil — ironically with Santos — before heading on to Toronto FC in Major League Soccer and now on to Liga MX’s Tigres UANL .
This is the food chain for South American players. If they show promise then they will soon be packing their suitcase. They might be heading to Brazil, where they will be sharing a dressing room with big name stars who are back in South America rounding off their careers, or with fine players who were unable to settle in Europe but still have plenty to offer.
The trends, then, would all seem to be pointing in the direction of a Brazilian domination of South American club competitions. But once in a while the gloriously unpredictable nature of football asserts itself and an upset occurs — and that has now happened with the mighty Santos falling to the unheralded Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela.