There was some euphoria at the end for Flamengo on Sunday as three late goals took them to a 4-2 victory over El Ahly of Egypt to claim third place in the Club World Cup in Morocco.
But in truth it was a melancholy occasion for the Brazilian giants. Many of their travelling supporters chose not to accompany them to a windswept Tangier. The game had been scheduled for Rabat, but concerns about the pitch — with the grand final still to come — forced a late change of venue. This, of course, was a logistical headache for the fans, and it was hardly surprising that some of them opted to stay in Rabat to take advantage of a rare opportunity to watch Real Madrid in the final against Al Hilal, the Saudi Arabian side who beat Flamengo on Tuesday.
Those Flamengo fans who made the trip to Tangier were rewarded with a win. But it was all a little bit hollow, and not just because it was a battle for third place. In truth, more than a game that Flamengo won, it was a contest that Al Ahly lost. The Egyptians wasted chances to bury the tie in the second half, and then spent the closing stages inventing bizarre ways to concede — a rash goalkeeping error, a disastrous backpass, a silly hand ball and a 2-1 lead turned into a defeat.
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And for Flamengo the win does nothing to erase the frustration at missing out on the final, and the dream meeting with Real Madrid. Since the current format was introduced in 2005 this is the sixth time that the South American champions have lost in the semifinal. It is becoming more frequent, and it is becoming harder to justify the status that the continent enjoys in the competition.
Together with the Europeans, the South American champions come straight in at the semifinal stage. The representatives of the other continents have to fight for the right to meet them. As with other recent winners of the Copa Libertadores, Flamengo did not deserve this privilege — and they have a claim to be the strongest side South America has sent to this competition in some time.
A large part of their problem, made all too evident in the last few days, is that they are a front-loaded team. They have gathered a potent collection of attacking talent, more than good enough to roll over local opposition. But ever since the loss of Spanish centre-back Pablo Mari three years ago they have found it hard to balance out their swashbuckling play with effective defence. Moreover, some of their players have inflated reputations — or at least are able to hide their defects — in an environment where their team enjoys financial and technical superiority.
With the last title win in this competition for a South American side back in 2012 (Corinthians over Chelsea), this, then, was another deeply disappointing version for the continent’s club football.
But not necessarily for South American football. Stars made in the continent shone on both sides in the final. For Real Madrid two of their five goals were scored and one set up by Vinicius Junior — made in Flamengo. The other two came from dynamic Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde. These are both players who fit the current model of the big European clubs — South American talent taken across the Atlantic as early as possible to develop and feel at home in a quicker, more intense style of football.
But there is more to life than wonderkids, as Al Hilal made clear. There were two fine goals, following the one he scored in the semifinal, from much travelled Argentine striker Luciano Vietto. Another former Premier League player, Peru’s Andre Carrillo, did surprisingly well as a winger improvised in a deeper midfield role. And Al Halal’s third goal in the final was an all-South American affair. The ball was robbed by Colombian midfielder Gustavo Cuellar, who once played for Flamengo — as did Brazilian winger Michael, who hit the byeline and pulled back for Vietto’s clever finish. And there is also the significant South American contribution to the participation this year of the Seattle Sounders, the first Major League Soccer team to make it to the Club World Cup.
There is much to celebrate about South American football — but it is undeniable that the domestic game has become an export industry. Europe takes the best players and other centres — such as Saudi Arabia, the United States and Mexico — take others. As a result, the best South American clubs are no longer clearly stronger than the champions from the non-European continents, and may well be hampered by the burdens of history and expectation.
This is not an easy truth to swallow. It is one that many in South America are forced to re-lean on an annual basis. For a while, though, it should be clear in the minds of all those who followed this latest version of the Club World Cup.