After months of grueling games and clocking up thousands of air miles, you’re finally lifting the trophy of the continent’s leading tournament, the Copa Libertadores - the Champions League of South America. You would think that from here you would go from strength to strength, with a chance of continental domination for at least the next few seasons. You think of Liverpool, AC Milan, Bayern Munich and Barcelona lauding it over rivals for sustained periods of time. The chances to build on your success in South America are, however, few and far between.
Winning the top prize can be more of a curse than a celebration. With success comes the almost instant wholesale squad changes, and with large European and increasingly Chinese nouveau riche clubs sniffing around for a foreign bargain, the Copa Libertadores is the perfect place to scout. It offers an extra shop window for young, emerging talent. Pitting their wits against the continent’s finest, players who are not necessarily household international names can show their wares outside of the U-21 Olympic or international competitions.
It was the turn of Colombia’s Atlético Nacional this year, who played some stunning attacking football whilst picking up the trophy. Finishing second overall in their domestic Primera A but winning their Clausura Atletico Nacional, the club were generally unfancied, ranked 20th in the tournament behind the might of Argentina’s River Plate and Boca Juniors, Uruguay’s Penarol and Nacional and Brazil’s Corinthians, Atlético Mineiro and Grêmio. They started strongly, topping their group with five wins and one draw, not letting in a single goal in the process, pushing them up to top seed for the knock-out draw.
Of course, this fine form attracted a lot of attention. In anticipation of losing their own talent, Brazil’s Santos snapped up winger Jonathan Copete. Ajax went for the young and talented centre-back Davinson Sanchez and the entire footballing world started fighting over the signature of wonderkid Marlos Moreno, with Manchester City coming out on top and bagging one of the world’s true up-and-coming stars. Surely it’s only a matter of time before other stand-out performers like striker Miguel Borja find their way heading out of the door in lucrative deals.
Last year’s winner, River Plate, suffered greatly as well, with Everton signing Funes Mori and Atlético Madrid going for defensive midfielder Kranevitter. Atlético Madrid also signed 2014 Copa Libertadores winner Angel Correa from San Lorenzo, and Atlético Mineiro lost stylish winger Bernard to Ukrainian big spenders Shakhtar Donesk for £21.25million after winning the 2013 tournament.
It’s not just the curse of the winners though; Atletico Nacional’s fellow finalists Independiente Del Valle, another surprise package of the tournament, is seeing its own ranks hit hard. Centre-back Arturo Mina has moved to River Plate, left winger Bryan Cabezas is on his way to Atalanta in Italy, and forward Jose Angulo has moved to Spain’s Granada for a club record €4.5million.
There are many reasons for the mass exodus seen by Copa Libertadores winners. The glitz, prestige and money on offer in Europe is obviously a massive draw. Lining up against and alongside the world’s biggest talents in Spain, Italy, Germany and England is probably one of the finest feelings and you would always regret not moving if you’d turned down the opportunity, wondering what could have been. It’s hard for us to sometimes imagine just how life-changing a move to Europe can be for some of these players. The money on offer, even if distinctly average compared to other players in their new leagues, is far and above what they can be paid in their home leagues. The wages could significantly raise the living standards for not just themselves but all their family too.
There is also pressure from the agents to move young and move fast. Most players in South America have complicated ownership, with the clubs often owning very little of the player’s registration with the bulk owned by the agent, a business consortium and sometimes the player themselves. The power lies very much with the agent, who will normally try to maximise revenue at the earliest opportunity.
Another deciding factor is the low level of prize money on offer in the Copa Libertadores. In 2015, it was just $5million for the winner, but after the threat of a mass walkout before the last tournament this was doubled to $10million. To put this into perspective, this is still only the value of a fairly average transfer from their club to Europe, adding further financial incentive to sell up instead of keeping their team together for a second push at glory. If leaks from the Panama Papers scandal are to be believed, the prize money on offer for the Copa could be drastically higher. Documents showed that the TV rights to show Copa Libertadores games throughout the whole of South America were sold off on the cheap to a Caribbean-based consortium, who then repackaged and sold on at huge profits, leaving the game without valuable income to reward its teams.
There’s prestige in winning the tournament, and although it may decimate your squad, South American clubs are largely resigned to this, having for years had their best talent cherry picked by big spending foreign clubs. It also acts as a leveler too. No team has won back-to-back Copa Libertadores since Boca Juniors back in 2000 and 2001, and so the constant rebuilding needed opens up competition in the tournament, and it’s just as rare to have the same team in two finals on the trot. It may be annoying if you’re a fan of the winning team, but it certainly makes it interesting for the outsider looking in.