To be Southern American is to always feel like an underdog. We don’t have the same resources as people from central countries. In our lives something trivial can suddenly become an adventure and if you aren't alert all the time someone will outsmart you and leave you behind. Obviously this social trait is reflected through the South American football vision and the Copa Libertadores – or simply La Copa - is the pinnacle of that.
Even the big clubs from Brazil and Argentina act like they don’t have the time or the money to plan things through and build the ideal conditions for a football team to develop like it should. Although they are generally victorious, matches are like medieval duels with the smaller teams succeeding in making life as hard as possible for the top teams. The fans understand that and chant as loud as they can to motivate their players: everyone must do more than they should be able to do, or no one survives. When the Libertadores knock-out phase takes place the moral values must be loosened and the supporters do whatever it takes to help their team: disturb the rivals sleep firing fireworks in front of their hotel, threaten their lives on their way to the match, etc. To conquer La Copa it is not enough to play nice football: a team also needs tenacity, that rare blend of wisdom and street smartness.
Tradition is frequently cited, since it’s said to help in those crucial moments of the tournament when someone will be left behind. Due to that, when the 2016 semi-finals ties were decided everything pointed to a Boca Juniors v São Paulo clash. Two of the main football clubs of the continent, São Paulo is the Brazilian team with more Copas and Boca is the second one in Argentina: only one title behind Independiente. The perfect storm was set, but there were 2 underdogs on the way.
Atletico Nacional, from Colombia, was the best team of the group stage with a 5W-1D-0L record. They trampled Argentinian side Huracan in the round of 16 but seemed destined to get eliminated in the quarter finals after losing 1 v 0 the first match against Rosario Central and conceding a goal with only 8 minutes of play at home. They didn’t give up, however, and scored twice and achieved a 3rd and magical goal on the injury time of the 2nd half, qualifying for the semi-finals.
The tiny Ecuadorian side Independiente del Valle began La Copa widely unknown. In every Libertadores edition there is a club with a curious name of whom no one has heard about that quickly becomes the joke of the year until it gets eliminated in the group stage. Del Valle seemed to be the 2016 example, but somehow they qualified for the knockout phase. Anyhow, their destiny looked sealed, since their rivals on the round of 16 would be the title holder and Argentinian giant River Plate. A 2x0 victory in Quito, however, kept their dream alive and allowed them to hold Los Millonarios in Buenos Aires. After that, it was nothing but fair that they had a little bit of luck in the quarter finals, scoring a dubious offside goal and taking the tie against the Mexican side Pumas to the penalties shootout. Five perfect shots and a save by the goalkeeper took them to the next phase.
Against all predictions, the two less traditional sides didn’t have much trouble in the semi-finals. Atletico Nacional beat São Paulo on both matches, just like Del Valle did with Boca in Ecuador and Argentina. Next Wednesday they will face each other with Del Valle hoping their connection with their supporters and the South American underdog aura are enough to take the Cinderella story to a happy ending and Atletico Nacional trying to prove that they can win also as favorites. The question is: in a year that saw Leicester conquering the Premier League and Portugal winning the Euro and in a continent where the underdog is the norm, can you say there is a real favorite?