In these times when Brazil dominates the Copa Libertadores, it is easy to forget that for many years the country did not see the competition as a priority. There were a couple of seasons in the late 1960s when Brazil did not even enter a team, and for a long time afterwards domestic considerations were seen as more important.
This started to change in the early 1990s, when under coach Tele Santana a glamorous Sao Paulo side won two Libertadores titles in a row, and came close to a third. Ever since then, Sao Paulo hae had a special relationship with the Libertadores, and at the start of this year, coach Rogerio Ceni, a club legend as a goalscoring goalkeeper, announced that the priority was to qualify for the 2023 edition.
Three routes are available. One is by finishing high enough in the league. This is looking problematic. Sao Paulo lie 14th, and are currently closer to the relegation zone than the Libertadores slots. More problematic still is the Brazilian Cup, where the winners make it in to the competition. Sao Paulo are still in that one at the semifinal stage -- but lost the first leg 3-1 at home to the mighty Flamengo, and need something very special next week to make it by that route.
So the best option is to win the Copa Sudamericana, the second-tier continental tournament. And that dream is still alive -- but only just. Sao Paulo are through to the final after beating fellow Brazilians Atletico Goianiense on penalties. Atletico are deep in Brazil's relegation zone, and made it clear that their priority is first division survival when they sacked coach Jorginho on the eve of the first leg. Under Eduardo Baptista, they won a morale boosting 3-1 win at home, on a night when nothing went right for Sao Paulo.
For the return game in the Morumbi stadium, Rogerio Ceni made four changes, abandoning his back three and looking to flood players forward in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Midfielder Partic scored with the team's first attack,and added another just after the hour. But then there was little else but half chances, and a penalty shoot out loomed as an inevitability long before the end. In the previous round Sao Paulo needed a shoot out to get past Brazilian opposition -- in this case Ceara -- and now they did it again, keeping their nerve as two Atletico players missed the target.
And so, with a title and a place in next year's Libertadores at stake, Sao Paulo march on to the final in Cordoba, Argentina, on Oct. 1. Their opponents are the first non-Brazilian team to make it through to a continental final for two years -- the remarkable Independiente del Valle of Ecuador.
Independiente del Valle's route to the decider was greatly eased by a couple of shock defeats for Brazilian sides -- both on penalty shootouts. Santos surprisingly fell to Deportivo Tachira of Venezuela, and equally as unexpected was the elimination of Internacional by Melgar of Peru. All it was left for Independiente del Valle to do was beat these two sides, which they did, home and away.
Their semifinal was not remotely close, with Melgar overcome 3-0 in both legs. Libertadores finalists in 2016, Independiente del Valle won the Sudamericana three years later, and are the reigning champions of Ecuador. Theirs is a truly extraordinary tale. A tiny club from the outskirts of Quito, they were taken over by investors some fifteen years ago with the idea of developing players to be then transferred. So far the most notable is midfielder Moises Caicedo, in such wonderful early season form with Brighton.
Along the way, somewhat to their surprise, the club understood that in addition to producing and transferring players, it might also be possible to compete for titles. There is no doubt, though, as to the priority. After winning the Ecuadorian title last year almost all the important youngsters were transferred. This year, teenage centre-back Joel Ordonez made a good impression. But after less than 10 games he moved on to Club Brugge of Belgium.
The current side are something of a departure. While the club waits for the next generation of youngsters to be ready, the starting line up is filled with experience, with a number of players brought in from Argentina -- both to help the youngsters bed in, and also to tide the club over in the time of transition.
But in addition to the excellence of their youth development, Independiente del Valle also have an astute eye for the market -- Argentine midfielder Lorenzo Faravelli is a midfielder of fine technique and intelligence who has become the heartbeat of the side. And now Faravelli and his teammates are the mouse that keeps on roaring, the little club from Ecuador who stand between Sao Paulo and their dreams of another international title and a place in next year's Libertadores.