The only thing standing between complete Brazilian domination of South American club football is a tiny club from the outskirts of the Ecuadorian capital. For the third consecutive year, the final of the Copa Libertadores will be an all-Brazilian affair. Last year the final of the Copa Sudamericana was also between two teams from Brazil.
This year's Sudamericana final is on Saturday, between Sao Paulo of Brazil and the remarkable Independiente del Valle from Ecuador. The match takes place in Cordoba, Argentina, and on paper, it hardly looks like a fair fight. Sao Paulo are a giant team, three times world and continental champions, with mass support. Independiente del Valle, meanwhile, had to return all but 1,500 of their ticket allocation of 14,000. There is no doubt about it. They will be the away side on Saturday -- and it will not bother them in the slightest.
A tiny club of little historical significance, Independiente del Valle were taken over in 2007 by a business project that sought to develop players to transfer them on. It has been remarkably successful. Their facilities are excellent, they bring in well-respected youth coaches and they are producing both quality and quantity. It is likely that around half of Ecuador's World Cup squad will have some connection with the club. The most high profile product is Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo, enjoying such a splendid season in the Premier League. The club are clear about their priority. They exist to transfer players. But along the way, to their own surprise, they have seen that it is all possible to challenge for silverware. They reached the final of the Libertadores in 2016. Three years later they won the Sudamericana in a 3-1 showdown in Paraguay against Colon of Argentina.
Last year, for the first time, they were crowned champions of Ecuador. The response, of course, was to transfer their best prospects. Since then players have appeared and already been transferred -- teenage centre-back Joel Ordonez made a highly promising start to senior team life, and did not even play ten matches before he was moved on to Club Brugges in Belgium. The side that finished the weekend's league game against Macara featured six home developed players of 20 or under.
But this is still a period of transition, between the sale of one generation of youth products and the consolidation of the next. The team that will take the field on Saturday is more experienced. The club also has a sharp eye for the market, bringing in players -- especially from Argentina -- who they hope will bring consistency to the team and help the youngsters to settle. Argentine holding midfielder Cristian Pellerano has carried out this role for years, and the 40-year-old's compatriot Lorenzo Faravelli is a technically gifted, intelligent midfielder who has been the most influential figure in Ecuadorian football in recent times. There are a couple aiming for inclusion in Ecuador's World Cup squad -- young goalkeeper Moises Ramirez is talented but still prone to rashness, and should be the third choice in Qatar, while playmaker Junior Sornoza is pressing for inclusion, and will aim to use Saturday's big occasion to show that he is more than a local phenomenon, and that he can tip the balance at a higher level.
Sao Paulo, though, will start as favourites, even though they are struggling in the Brazilian first division. Indeed, until a couple of recent wins they were looking anxiously over their shoulder at the relegation zone. This is an important moment for the club, because Sao Paulo have a special relationship with the Libertadores. Until the early 1990s, when an attractive Sao Paulo side under Tele Santana won back to back versions of the Libertadores, Brazil was somewhat cool towards the competition. Sao Paulo, then, were ahead of the curve, and coach Rogerio Ceni, their former goalscoring goalkeeper, made no secret of the priority at the start of the year -- to win a place in the 2023 Libertadores. There are three ways in -- to win the domestic cup (Sao Paulo lost in the semifinals), through league position (possible, but only with an excellent run of late season form) or to win the Sudamericana.
Saturday's match, then, not only represents the chance to claim a title. It is also the best way to achieve this season's objective and get back to the Libertadores. Coach Ceni's side is not entirely convincing -- they needed penalty shoot outs against Brazilian teams in both of the last two rounds to make it to the final, while Independiente del Valle won all of their quarter- and semifinal matches, home and away.
But the Ecuadorian David will need another sling to bring down the Brazilian Goliath. Independiente del Valle tried to seduce the local population of Cordoba into supporting them on Saturday, but, as the return of so many tickets makes clear, they did not succeed. They will be on their own when they step out into the Mario Kempes Stadium. Can they write yet another remarkable chapter in their story? Or is there no stopping the Brazilian domination of club football in South America?