It is called the Final Four -- and it looks like the start of an exciting new era. On Friday, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF announced that the top two North American clubs will play South American counterparts as part of a partnership between the two confederations (which will also see the 2024 Copa America be held in the United States).
Finding space for this will not be easy in an already over-crowded calendar. But both sides of the line stand to gain. The CONCACAF Champions League will continue to gain in spades through this contact with the tradition and magic of South American football.
And the idea helps South America's Copa Libertadores out of a hole it has fallen into in recent years. The Brazilians have taken total control. The last three finals have been all-Brazilian affairs. The competition is already in danger of duplicating Brazil's domestic cup. Taking on the best from Liga MX and Major League Soccer will add an extra layer of challenge and interest.
And inside Brazil, a new state of affairs has emerged. Many thought that Brazil was too big, with too many giant clubs, to become a South American version of Spain, ruled by a duopoly, à la Real Madrid and Barcelona. But the facts show otherwise. The last four Libertadores titles have been divided between Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo and Palmeiras of Sao Paulo. And these two clubs have also claimed four of the last five Brazilian league titles. Palmeiras and Flamengo are well ahead of the pack -- one of the reasons why their meeting on Saturday was so enthralling. They faced off in Brasilia in the Supercopa do Brasil, a clash of the reigning league champions against the cup winners. There is a trophy at stake, there is a rivalry which has been stoked high over recent years, and there is the undeniable fact that the Brazilian football year gets off to a slow start.
The first few months are devoted to the out-dated regional tournaments, where these giants are forced to play tiny teams with minimal support bases. The group phase of the Libertadores gets underway early in April, but that should be a cakewalk for these two clubs. The Super Cup, then, is the only big domestic game for a while. This makes for a hotly disputed occasion -- and among their dreary local matches against inconsequential opponents, it is also important practice for Flamengo, who are now set for a huge international challenge -- representing South America at the Club World Cup next month in Morocco. And so, with a dream final against Champions League holders Real Madrid in mind, they may well be concerned at losing to Palmeiras on Saturday 4-3 in a pulsating game.
Reflecting a strong recent trend, this is a clash of two teams with Portuguese coaches. Abel Ferreira of Palmeiras is well established, his combination of detailed planning, excellent work and exaggerated antics marking him out as a young version of Jose Mourinho. Arriving in Brazil as a virtual unknown, he has guided Palmeiras to two Libertadores titles plus last year's league win. Vitor Pereira, meanwhile, has only just arrived at Flamengo after spending last year in charge of Corinthians in Sao Paulo.
Part of the rationale for bringing in a European coach is the possibility of playing Real Madrid. Although Flamengo won both the Libertadores and the domestic cup last year there was always a feeling that the defence was suspect, and there certainly were games when the goal seemed to live a charmed life. With enviable financial resources, Flamengo have built a front loaded team. How to conciliate this with effective defence?
In 2022, the diamond formation in midfield left the team looking vulnerable down the flanks. Pereira has started off trying to cover the field with a more orthodox 4-4-2, with second striker Gabriel Barbosa withdrawn in the hole, and creative midfielders Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian de Arrascaeta pushed wide -- and then swapping positions with Barbosa when they cut inside.
Palmeiras have found a place in the starting lineup for 16-year-old sensation Endrick. With him operating mostly through the middle, centre-forward Rony can frequently revert to his previous position on the flanks. The other major change is the transfer of central midfielder Danilo to Nottingham Forest has opened up space in the starting line up for Gabriel Menino.
This switch does much to explain the way that the game unfurled. The dynamism of Danilo is impossible to replace, with a consequent loss of defensive solidity. But Menino strikes the ball extremely well. His wonderful left foot shot -- his weaker foot -- from range put Palmeiras 2-1 up on the stroke of halftime. Flamengo had struggled to find their attacking fluency, although they took the lead with a Gabriel penalty before Raphael Veiga lashed Palmeiras level.
Flamengo brought Everton Ribeiro for the second half, one of five players to have been on World Cup duty, into a more central role and their game started to flow. They had the better of much of the second half, scoring two excellent goals through Barbosa and Pedro. But in between Endrick won a penalty, converted by Raphael Veiga.
Going into the last 20 minutes, then, the game was in the balance at 3-3, with Flamengo probably the favourites. Palmeiras tightened up, replacing Endrick with Mayke to protect their right flanks and go on the counter attack. And they scored the winner when Dudu and Raphael Veiga combined for a cross that was scuffed in -- again with his left foot -- by Gabriel Menino.
It was a goal that left Flamengo fearing what the likes of Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior, plus Karim Benzema and other Real Madrid playmakers, might do to their defence next month in Morocco. They threw everything at Palmeiras in the last few minutes, occasionally leaving themselves open at the other end, and as temperatures kept rising Ferreira was sent off a few minutes before he could celebrate yet another title.
The Brazilian season, then, is off to an exciting start, though it is clearly unfortunate that there is such a long wait until the next comparable domestic occasion. At least, from 2024, the Final Four seems likely to add some extra zing to the end of the campaign.