Some would see South America’s Recopa Sudamericana, or Super Cup, mainly as a festive occasion; a two-legged extravaganza with the main purpose of raising the curtain on the new season of international club competition.
It’s an understandable point of view. After all, there is no equivalence between the two contestants. Brazilian giants Flamengo won the Copa Libertadores, the continent’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League, giving them the right to represent South America in the Club World Cup. And Independiente del Valle of Ecuador won the Copa Sudamericana, which trails the Libertadores by some distance in terms of prestige. These, then, are the holders of the continent’s two cup competitions. But nothing Independiente del Valle do over these two Recopa games can wipe away the undeniable fact that 2022 was Flamengo’s year.
But there is a title at stake — and that is always a big deal in South America. And, at the grave risk of stating the obvious, it is no longer 2022. A new year, a new season, and these two matches will be judged in the context of the build-up to the challenges of 2023.
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This applies especially to Flamengo, the undoubted Goliath in this dispute. Just a few weeks into the season they, and new Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira, are already under pressure. They lost the Brazilian Super Cup 4-3 to Palmeiras. Then came the immense disappointment of the Club World Cup in Morocco, where they lost their semifinal 3-2 to Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal, and were somewhat fortunate to finish in third place after a 4-2 win over Egypt’s Al Ahly.
Then, in last Tuesday’s first leg of the Recopa in the altitude of Quito, Ecuador’s mountain capital, Pereira’s side turned in another sub-standard display. The Brazilians fell 1-0, but in truth could have lost by a far greater margin.
Coach Pereira is being forced to deal with a problem that has been hovering over the team for a while. His compatriot Jorge Jesus led the team through a magical 2019 — still the gold standard for most Flamengo fans — with a line-up that was boldly front loaded, featuring two strikers and two attacking midfielders. It was never an easy task to balance attacking firepower with defensive consistency, and two developments have made life harder.
First, Spanish centre-back Pablo Mari moved to Arsenal in 2020. He was well trained in attacking the halfway line rather than running back to defend the penalty area, allowing the team to stay compact and win back possession soon after losing the ball. He has never been replaced. And there has been a change in the front four, with the injured Bruno Henrique giving way to World Cup centre-forward Pedro — a top finisher and a player with great technical gifts, but a different kind of striker. Bruno Henrique was three in one: a winger with penalty area presence who can also work back and help out with the marking. In his absence and that of Pablo Mari, Flamengo have become much more defensively vulnerable, hence the alarming numbers in the goals against column.
But their attacking threat is unmatched on the continent, and with a packed Maracana crowd behind them, Flamengo are still clear favourites to overturn their one goal deficit and claim the title in front of their own fans. The pressure is certainly all on them.
For Independiente del Valle, winning the Recopa would probably not even be the most important thing to happen to them in the period over which these two games are being played. That is because on Sunday they gave a debut to maybe the most talked about 15-year-old in world football, support striker Kendry Paez, who celebrated the occasion with a glorious goal against Mushuc Runa, a sumptuously struck lobbed volley that dropped inside the far corner.
Paez is already on the wishlist of major European clubs, and he looks like the most promising product yet of a youth development system which is rapidly becoming a global reference.
A tiny club from the Quito suburbs, Independiente del Valle were taken over some 15 years ago by a group of businessmen (and football fans) who saw the prime aim of the endeavour as producing players to sell. They invest heavily in youth structure, bring over top class youth coaches from Europe and have enjoyed a tie in with the Aspire Academy in Qatar. Brighton‘s Moises Caicedo is their most successful export so far — astonishingly, he was one of nearly half of Ecuador’s recent World Cup squad to have a connection with the club.
The aim, then, is to produce to sell. It has come as a surprise even to those running the club that while they are doing this, Independiente del Valle can also compete for titles. They made it all the way to the final of the Libertadores in 2016. At the end of 2021 they won their first Ecuadorian league title, and last year’s 2-0 triumph over Sao Paulo gave them the Sudamericana for the second time. In an age of Brazilian domination, this remarkable club are baulking the trend.
Over recent years they have developed an eye for the market, bringing in players who can ensure that the team remains competitive. Currently they are in something of a transitionary phase; the last crop of youngsters have been sold — more of them and earlier as the club attains a reputation for excellence — and the next generation, like Paez, are still coming up through the ranks. So the first team now is much older and more foreign, especially Argentine, than has usually been the case. And on Tuesday in the Maracana this team will face the challenge that confronts all the non-Brazilian sides in this year’s Libertadores — how to defend against the attacking talent that the likes of Flamengo, Palmeiras and Atletico Mineiro can bring to bear.
The entire continent will be watching, looking for clues. There is plenty at stake, then, when Flamengo take on Independiente del Valle to contest the destiny of the Recopa.