The Copa Libertadores and differing stories for Ronaldinho and Riquelme

Jonathan Wilson

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Aug 1, 2010
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As Juan Román Riquelme frowns his way across the continent, the contrast with Ronaldinho's grin has never been greater
The Copa Libertadores this season has been the story of two brilliant players in the twilights of their careers: one having immense fun as though he can't quite believe he's still getting away with it, the other grumpily raging against his waning powers. For Ronaldinho and Atlético Mineiro, this has been, so far, a tournament of glee, of great goals and big wins; for Juan Román Riquelme and Boca Juniors, it has been all about suffering. Both will be in the last 16, but their journeys could hardly have been more different. It's also been the story of the continuing development of Ecuadorean football.
As the Copa Libertadores enters the final round of group games this week, there are still a few issues to be resolved. Tigre go to Libertad on Thursday needing a win to qualify for the last 16 ahead of the Paraguayans, Deportes Molina must win in Cerro Porteno and hope Santa Fe beat Real Garcilasco on Tuesday night if they are to qualify ahead of the Peruvians, while any of the four sides – Fluminense, Grêmio, Huachipato and Caracas – could still qualify from Group Eight.
Perhaps most intriguingly, though, the Bolivian side The Strongest go into their final game, away to Arsenal de Sarandi, two points clear of both their opponents and Sao Paulo, who are at home to Atlético Mineiro. Atlético have been the outstanding side of the group stage. They've banged in 16 goals in five games and are already installed as the highest seeds for the last 16 (in the Libertadores, the group winner with the best record plays the runner-up with the poorest record, second best plays second worst and so on) even with a game to go. While there are those, particularly from Arsenal de Sarandi, who would argue that they've been helped by intimidating policing at home games, they have also played some sparkling attacking football to which Ronaldinho, still only 33, has been central.
His second goal in the 5-2 win over Arsenal was majestic, a strike of such ludicrous precision it seemed as though he were telling the keeper that wherever he was positioned he could still beat him. Just as importantly, the platform provided by Pierre and Leandro Donizete means Atlético can – just about – accommodate a genius who will never track back. At least part of the reason for bringing Diego Tardelli back from Qatar, you suspect is that he does have the energy and inclination to do at least some defensive work, whether he operates as the central striker or the right with Jô, once of Manchester City, as the centre-forward. Whether Atlético have the defensive capability to go on to win the tournament is debatable, but they've been great fun so far.
The Fifa world rankings are much mocked – and up to a point understandably so: it's hard for instance, to believe Ecuador, who finished bottom of their group at the 2011 Copa América, are the 10th best side in the world. What the rankings are good at showing, though, are trends and that Ecuadorean football is rising can hardly be doubted. The national side stands second in Conmebol World Cup qualifying but what is perhaps most significant is that, of the 23-man squad that thrashed Paraguay 4-1 in March, 13 played for domestic clubs.
GDP doubled between 1999 and 2007 and, although the dip in oil prices effected growth, it still rose by around 4% in 2012. So strong is the economy that not only is there less incentive for talented Ecuadoreans to play abroad but the league is able to attract talent form elsewhere in South America, most notably Argentina. LDU Quito's success in the Libertadores in 2008 felt at the time like a bit of a freak (they only actually won two of their eight matches in the knock-out phase, winning the quarter-final and final on penalties and the semi-final on away goals) but there has been steady progress by Ecuadorean sides.
This year, in fact, there is probably a sense of disappointment that only one Ecuadorean team, Emelec, has made it through to the last 16. They eliminated Flamengo last season before going out to the eventual champions, Corinthians, in the last 16. This year, inspired by Pedro Quiñónez and the back of midfield and the forward partnership of the 21-year-old Marlon de Jesús and the Argentinian Marcos Mondaini, they have made it through again, securing qualification above Penarol with a goalless draw away to Vélez Sársfield, who topped the group. It was the first away game in which they avoided defeat but they haven't scored in eight of their last nine away Libertadores games. It's not, as was often said of LDU Quito, an issue of altitude, for Emelec are from Guayaquil, on the coast, but it is an obvious concern. If the seedings work out more kindly than last year, though, there's no reason Emelec shouldn't reach the quarter-finals.
The other two Ecuadorean challengers have already been eliminated. LDU Quito went out in the first stage, losing to Grêmio on penalties, while Barcelona never really recovered from conceding a last-minute equaliser away to Nacional in their opening fixture, a game in which they were much the better side for long periods and went 2-0 up inside half an hour. They lost 2-1 at home to Boca Juniors a week later and have faded since, failing to win a single game. They face Nacional on Wednesday night with the only issue left to be resolved whether the Uruguayans will take top spot in the group above Boca, who are away to Toluca.
Boca's progress, like so much that's happened in the months since they lost to Corinthians in the final, has been stumbling. A home defeat to Toluca in their opening game put them under pressure that was increased when, having beaten Barcelona in Ecuador, they lost 1-0 at home to Nacional. What followed in the Centenario was transcendent in its ugliness, a performance of heart, grit, resolve and very little football. Having lost Claudio Pérez to a second yellow card in the 20th minute, they took the lead with a Riquelme penalty on the stroke of half-time and held out through an increasingly fractious second half. It was magnificent, and they secured progress with a grim 1-0 home win over Barcelona, but it was hard not to wonder whether that was really what Riquelme envisaged following when he railed against Julio César Falcioni's negativity last year.
Carlos Bianchi's return as Boca coach has been a difficult one. Boca have won just one of nine games in the league and were hammered 6-1 at San Martín de San Juan at the weekend. The defender Matías Caruzzo and the midfielder Juan Mino were involved in a heated discussion during that game, hinting at the general disgruntlement within the squad. Bianchi inherited a side low on morale and while they seem able to pull together for dour rearguards in the Libertadores it's no great secret that certain players are frustrated at the influence Riquelme, now 34, still wields – nine months after everybody thought he'd retired.
He is famously a player who never looks happy, but as Riquelme continues to frown his way across the continent, the contrast with Ronaldinho's grin has never been greater.
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