The Club World Cup is taken so seriously in Brazil that the debate rages long after the final whistle. How should Palemiras be judged after their 2-1 defeat to Chelsea? They were just a few minutes away from taking the European champions to a penalty shoot out. Was this a heroic performance? Or was their display an exaggerated case of ultra-defence?
Arguments are being made on both sides. The truth may be somewhere in the middle. A relationship clearly exists between risk and return, and Palmeiras made their front players run back so far and work so hard that the team ran out of gas and ideas. Come the end they were a counter-attacking team without a counter attack. But, given the economic disparity between football in the two continents, what else could they have done against the champions of Europe? David could only kill Goliath from a distance. Did anyone really expect Palmeiras to go toe-to-toe with Chelsea?
It was certainly never an option under coach Abel Ferreira. The Marcelo Bielsa-Jorge Sampaoli school of coaches would disagree, but most in Brazil would say that it was not an option at all. The Flamengo side that won the Copa Libertadores in 2019 were a much more attacking outfit than this Palmeiras side. They gave Liverpool a good game in the final of that year's Club World Cup. But even they did not go toe-to-toe, their full backs playing a much more conservative role than in games against South American opposition.
Nevertheless, the evidence of 2019 and last Saturday hints at a tentative conclusion that the gap between the best of Europe and the best of South America is narrowing a little. The big Brazilian teams have increased their financial muscle. They can now sign two types of player from Europe -- veterans looking to return home, and those in their mid 20s who have not lived up to expectations on the other side of the Atlantic. Most of the Flamengo 2019 team fall into these two categories.
Palmeiras have key defender Gustavo Gomez -- a Paraguayan centre back who failed to make the grade at Milan - and brains of the attack Dudu, who spent time at Dinamo Kiev. And they also have plenty of a type of player which no longer seems to interest the big European clubs -- attacking midfielder Raphael Veiga, striker Rony and defender Luan are in their mid to late twenties. They are capable of operating at a high level. But Europe -- or at least the big clubs -- is no longer interested. They are too old. Europe wants youngsters -- and it is finding new ways of getting them.
Palmeiras begin their defence of the Copa Libertadores title in April, when the group phase kicks off. But the action is already underway in the first of the three qualifying rounds. And the opening duel features competition debutants, Montevideo City Torque of Uruguay, part of City Football Group. They are up against Barcelona of Ecuador (no direct link to the LaLiga side), last year's semifinalists. And on Tuesday they travel to Ecuador to play in the Monumental stadium in Guayaquil, the venue where this year's final is set to take place on October 29th.
Torque will not be there. They will probably be out of the competition come Tuesday night. But, at this stage, that is not the point. Their long term aim is to develop players. Most of Montevideo's clubs are traditional associations, dedicated to representing a neighbourhood of the city. This is not the case with Torque, founded by a group of businessmen in 2007, and a decade later incorporated into the City conglomerate. It is precisely the lack of tradition that made it easier for the City Football Group to take over -- there was no cultural resistance from supporters who for generations have seen the club as a vital part of their identity.
Just over two years ago the club was formally renamed as Montevideo City Torque, with the colours and the badge altered in accordance with the ownership. And now here they are in the Libertadores for the first time. Their inaugural match, last Tuesday's first leg against Barcelona, had its comical aspect. The venue was the giant, imposing, historical Centenario stadium built for the 1930 World Cup. And Torque could only count on a few hundred supporters -- many of them possibly youth team players with the club and their families. At least they had something to cheer when a second half goal gave them a 1-1 draw, and an outside chance of further progress in the competition.
But the main measure of the success of this project will be in the players that Torque develop -- who, if all goes well, can eventually be moved on to top class careers at Manchester City. Uruguay is a fabulous producer of footballers, and the City Group are now investing in that talent at source. This is still very early days.
The most promising members of the Torque team have been spotted and brought in from elsewhere.Nicolas Siri, a 17-year-old striker, was signed from Danubio with a first division hat trick already to his name. Centre back Renzo Orihuela, 20, has been acquired from local giants Nacional. Alongside him in the heart of defence is Diego Arismendi, once a midfielder with Stoke and Brighton, now using his experience to help the growth of the youngsters around him. Perhaps one day one of Torque's graduates will be playing in the final of the Club World Cup -- but the chances are that he will be lining up for the European team.