Over the next 15 months South America will dominate the soccer conversation like never before.
In mid-June, Brazil will face Japan in the opening match of the Confederations Cup, the eight-team tournament that serves as a trial run for both the participants and the host nation for the World Cup. And with a handful of stadiums and infrastructure projects still uncompleted, Brazil will be under the microscope for non-soccer reasons over the next year or so as well.
But there will also be goal-line technology employed at the competition, and if FIFA are satisfied with the GoalControl system they’ve appointed for the Confederations Cup they’ll use it at the World Cup as well. In other words, South America will be the first, major testing ground for technology in soccer at the highest level of the game.
The continent’s club competitions will get some attention as well.
In 2012 the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) — an independent body founded in 1984 that tracks the sport from a purely statistical perspective — released its annual ranking of national championships and found that Brazil’s Campeonato Serie A was second only to Spain’s La Liga when they applied their metric, which took into account the results of the top five clubs in each league, weighed against the coefficients of the competitions in which they took part over the course of the calendar year.
Not surprisingly, their findings caused no shortage of controversy. (Who, after all, would claim Brazil’s Serie A to be superior to England’s Premier League or Germany’s Bundeslgia?)
But that Brazilian club football has been trending upward in recent years — not coincidentally, as the economy has boomed and revenue from sponsorships and television has poured in — is undeniable, and reinforced by the repatriation of native sons, such as Alexandre Pato, and the willingness of its up-and-coming stars to stay in the country.
Neymar fits into this latter category, and there’s a good chance we’ll know a thing or two more about his future plans by the time the World Cup rolls around. Will he make a much-anticipated, big-money move abroad? Or will he remain at Santos, where he is on very competitive wages?
These are just some of the storylines to keep an eye on as South America prepares to take over the soccer consciousness. But there are others. Following are 10 of the most important, and by tracking them you’ll be better positioned to understand the state of the continent’s soccer as interest in it continues to grow.
Ronaldinho’s resurgence at Atletico Mineiro
He turned 33 in March, but these days Ronaldinho is enjoying his soccer more than he has in years. He scored nine goals and assisted on 11 others as Atletico Mineiro finished second in Serie A last season and currently has the Belo Horizonte side into the last 16 of the Copa Libertadores. His teammates at Atletico include former Manchester City striker Jo, long-time Brazil international Gilberto Silva and blue-chip prospect Bernard, who led the team with 11 goals last term.
Youngsters staying longer in their homelands
At 20-years of age, Atletico Mineiro attacker Bernard is earning more money in Brazil than he’d get if he moved to Europe. The same is true of many of the country’s young stars, which is why more and more of them — such as Leandro Damiao, Wellington Nem, Dede and, obviously Neymar — are opting to enjoy the home comforts a bit longer before entertaining a move abroad. High-profile players are putting in their prime years in other South American leagues as well. In Ecuador, goalkeeper Maximo Banguera, midfielder Juan Carlos Paredes and defender Frickson Erazo have each resisted moves abroad in order to stay with Guayaquil side Barcelona.
Dede, and other internal transfers
Vasco da Gama defender Dede will shortly join Cruzeiro for €11 million, a transfer that will put to rest the future of one of South America’s highest-rated central defenders. What’s especially noticeable about the transaction is that it was made between two Brazilian clubs, not one from Brazil and another from Europe. The old, almost colonial arrangement between Brazil and Europe is over, and many domestic sides can now afford to bid for players who, previously, would have been destined to cross the Atlantic.
CONMEBOL still has its quirks. South American soccer’s governing body incorrectly posted its most prestigious tournament’s knockout bracket on its website following this week’s Round of 16 draw, but after being notified of the error published the correct matchups. The fun extends to the soccer as well, and between next week and the end of July the Copa Libertadores will offer some of the most entertaining stuff available. Corinthians are defending champions and also beat UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea in the 2012 Club World Cup.
They are two of the continent’s biggest clubs and last spring met in the Libertadores final, where Corinthians prevailed 3-1 on aggregate. This time around they’ve been tied together in the Round of 16, and while Boca’s fortunes have diminished significantly over the last nine months Corinthians have moved from strength to strength. They should have little trouble dispatching the Buenos Aires giants and grumpy playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme next month, after which they’ll face one of Brazilian weaklings Palmeiras or Mexico’s Tijuana.
Atletico Mineiro-Sao Paulo
This is likely to be the Round of 16’s tie to watch and will pit to of Brazil’s form sides against one another. Atletico Mineiro should be considered slight favourites, although Campeonato Paulista table-toppers Sao Paulo will be no pushovers. Fronted by long-time Sevilla striker Luiz Fabiano, Sao Paulo also boasts Jadson and Paulo Henrique Ganso in midfield and former Brazil captain Lucio in defense.
While the “English disease” has long since been eradicated (for the most part), fan violence remains a very serious matter in South American soccer. Just last month a young Palmeiras fan died from a gunshot wound to the head after encountering a group of Corinthians supporters, and in Argentina the hardcore supporters of River Plate engaged police in a shoot-out ahead of a match against Gimnasia La Plata. These gangs of fans, or barras bravas, are extremely powerful and often funded by the clubs, themselves. Too often the authorities have neither the resources nor the stomach to take them on, and incidents such as these will no doubt get much more attention ahead of the World Cup.
Confederations Cup preparations
“Not all operational arrangements (for the Confederations Cup) will be 100 per cent,” wrote FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke in a column on the governing body’s website earlier this month. He added, “We are all working together tirelessly against the clock to make sure that the facilities will be ready to host a world-class tournament in two months.” While the stadiums at Belo Horizonte, Recife, Salvador and Fortalenza have already been completed, both Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana and Brasilia’s Mane Garrincha were not finished by the April 15 deadline.
World Cup preparations
Some airports will be unable to properly service an influx of tourists; some cities won’t have the hotel capacities necessary for an event of this magnitude. A handful of stadiums will likely be completed late. And Manaus, the Amazon outpost in the northwest of Brazil, fits into all three categories. Neither FIFA nor the organizing committee will come out and say it, but there’s a chance — albeit a small one — that the city simply won’t be ready for the World Cup, meaning its matches will have to be redistributed. Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians is also behind schedule (as are the routes leading to the ground), and work on stadiums in Porto Alegre, Cuiaba, Natal and Curitiba will have to speed up if they’re to be delivered on time.
At some point, Neymar will make a decision that will put a stop to rampant speculation about his future. Ever since his break-out season of 2009 the forward has been destined for greatness, and even though he’s only 21 it seems the Santos phenom has been around for ages. In 2010 Chelsea made a £20 million offer for his services that looks ridiculous in retrospect. At this point it will take at upwards of £60 million to pry him from Santos, and that’s if he even wants to leave. His current wage packet pays him about £275,000 per week, making him among the top earners in the sport. No other player his age makes anywhere near that amount, and only a handful of European clubs could afford to match it. At some point in the near future there will be a Brazilian superstar who plays his entire career in Brazil. The question right now — is Neymar that player?
Jerrrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.