Philip Barker

The club championship of South America, the Copa Libertadores, was one honour that eluded the late Diego Maradona.

His old club Boca Juniors had hoped to lift the trophy as a fitting tribute to their favourite son, but dreams of an emotional final appearance ended with defeat by Santos a fortnight ago.

Santos now face fellow Brazilians Palmeiras at Rio de Janeiro's fabled Maracanã Stadium tomorrow.

The current season was to have commemorated the competition’s 60th anniversary, but COVID-19 restrictions forced its postponement to a year and 10 days after 47 sides had set out in January 2020.

The idea of a continental tournament had been suggested in the years before the First World War. It came a step closer in 1948 when Robinson Alvarez, President of the Chilean club Colo-Colo, organised an event which he hoped would establish his team as the continent’s best. In fact the impressive trophy, presented by Chilean President Gabriela Gonzalez Videla, was won by the Brazilians of Vasco da Gama.

Although it was unofficial, the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) has acknowledged its historical significance.

In the late 1950s, Brazilian Jose Ramos de Freitas was elected CONMEBOL President. He wanted to "discuss important problems relating to future activities on the continent."

His proposal of a continental club competition was accepted by Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. Seven champion clubs began the quest when it kicked off in April 1960.

Santos is famously the club of Pelé, considered by many to be the best footballer of all time ©Getty Images
Santos is famously the club of Pelé, considered by many to be the best footballer of all time ©Getty Images

Ties were over two legs and the first match played was Peñarol of Uruguay against Jorge Wilstermann, a side named after a Bolivian airman. Their challenge never took off. Peñarol’s Carlos Borges scored the opening goal after 13 minutes. He added a second four minutes later and Peñarol were four up before half-time, eventually winning 7-1. The match had been played in the same Montevideo stadium where Uruguay won the first FIFA World Cup 30 years before.

"Peñarol won by a landslide against mediocre opponents. At no time were the Bolivians able to neutralise the attack of their rivals," was the newspaper verdict.

The second leg was a formality. Peñarol progressed to a semi against Argentina’s San Lorenzo.

Both games were drawn. With no away goals rule in force, Peñarol won a playoff, with two goals from Alberto Spencer, an Ecuadorian destined to be the leading scorer that year.

Meanwhile, Olimpia of Paraguay had been given a bye to the last four. They drew 0-0 against Millonarios of Colombia in Bogota, but won 5-1 in Asuncion.

The Asuncion newspaper La Tribuna now spoke of "great expectations", but Peñarol won the first leg 1-0 again thanks to Spencer.

"Technically, Peñarol were the better side", said Uruguayan newspapers, critical of Olimpia’s "rough defence". Juan Vicente Lezcano was sent off.

In the second leg, Hipolito Recalde scored in the first half to give Olimpia hope, but seven minutes from time, Luis Cubilla scored the goal which ensured Peñarol became the first South American champions. Cubilla became a legend in Uruguay and said later: "I don't remember well, but with what they gave us for that final I bought a little piece of land in Montevideo, where I later built my house. But it wasn't a big deal either."

Palmeiras have won only one of their previous four finals ©Getty Images
Palmeiras have won only one of their previous four finals ©Getty Images

What was a big deal was the opportunity to play the European champions in an intercontinental challenge match.

Many believe that this was the real motivation behind the establishment of the competition. Peñarol lost to European Cup winners Real Madrid. By a twist of fate, Real’s greatest star Alfredo Di Stéfano had been born across the River Plate in Buenos Aires.

Peñarol remained supreme in South America in 1961 and then, in 1962, reached the final a third time to play Santos. This went to a third match before Santos won with two goals from their star player. His name was Pelé!

Santos won again the following year against Boca Juniors but were the last Brazilian club to lift the trophy until 1976. The next decade was largely dominated by Argentinian teams. The country's first club to taste success came from Buenos Aires, but Boca Juniors and River Plate both had to wait.

Instead, Independiente beat Nacional of Uruguay in 1964, successfully retained their title in 1965 and went on to win seven titles, the most successful team in the competition's history.

In the early years, only national champions took part in the Libertadores, but soon others demanded a piece of the action. In 1966, the tournament expanded to allow a wider entry. Racing Club of Buenos Aires were at least Argentinian champions when they beat Nacional in a 1967 final which again went to three matches.

They also won an ill-tempered Intercontinental Cup final against European champions Celtic.

Estudiantes de la Plata, including future World Cup-winning coach Carlos Bilardo, maintained Argentina’s dominance. The first to win the Copa three times in a row, their reputation was tainted because of their cynical style, described as "anti futbol". Their notoriety spread when they beat Manchester United in the 1968 Intercontinental Cup in matches remembered more for violence than football.

The following year, their performances were so brutal that Argentinian state President Juan Carlos Onganía demanded the arrest of the players. For almost a decade afterwards, European champions refused to have anything to do with the winners of the Libertadores.

Incredibly it wasn’t until 1977 that Buenos Aires grandees Boca won their first of two successive titles. Their victory over the Brazilians Cruzeiro came on penalties, a Libertadores first. Both victories came in the Pre-Maradona era.

Argentinos Juniors, Maradona’s first club, astonished the continent in 1985 by beating the Colombians of América de Cali. Although by this time, the great man was playing in Europe, monies received from his transfers gave the club the resources needed to challenge at this level.

Only then did Boca’s great rivals River Plate become Libertadores champions when they beat another Colombian team, Deportivo Cali, in 1986.

By now, other nations were writing their names on the not inconsiderable base of the trophy.

The year 1979 had been a Paraguayan Annus Mirabilis. Olimpia recruited Cubilla, who had scored the deciding goal against them in 1960 as their coach "because he had Cup experience." Their investment that season, claimed to be $1 million (£730,000/€825,000), paid off as they beat Boca Juniors to win the Libertadores. Their players also helped the national side to the Copa América.

Independiente, champions in 1965, have won the Copa Libertadores a record seven times ©Getty Images
Independiente, champions in 1965, have won the Copa Libertadores a record seven times ©Getty Images

There was not a scorpion in sight when Colombia’s flamboyant keeper René Higuita saved four penalties and scored himself in a shootout when Atlético Nacional of Medellin beat Olimpia a decade later. The heroes of Colombia’s first triumph were commemorated in a huge mural.

Colo-Colo of Chile finally placed their hands on the trophy in 1991 with a 3-0 victory over Olimpia. It was 53 years after the pilot tournament which had started it all.

Sadly Alvarez did not live to see his beloved club achieve the "Sueno Libertador" - dream of the Libertadores. He had passed away in 1965.

The Ecuadorians also had a champion side in 2008. Liga Deportivo Universitario Quito beat the Brazilians of Fluminense in the Maracanã .

By this time, Mexican clubs had been invited to the party. Guadalajara reached the 2010 final but lost to Internacional of Porto Alegre before Tigres UANL were defeated by River Plate in 2015.

Then scheduling difficulties intervened and the Mexicans withdrew.

Few if any finals have captured the imagination to match the ultimate "Superclásico" in 2018.

Buenos Aires giants Boca and River reached the final together for the first time. It finished 2-2 in the first leg at Boca’s "La Bombonera". Before the second leg, the Boca team bus was attacked as it arrived at the Estadio Monumental.

The final hung in limbo, before CONMEBOL announced the second leg would be played at a neutral venue. Miami and Doha both offered but they chose the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid.

The official reasoning was that outside of Argentina, Madrid had the biggest Argentinian population. It was listed as the 10th-safest city. "It has the airport with the greatest connectivity with Argentina and is a city with a great soccer tradition."

The 2018 Copa Libertadores final, between bitter rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate, was one for the ages ©Getty Images
The 2018 Copa Libertadores final, between bitter rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate, was one for the ages ©Getty Images

CONMEBOL President Alejandro Domínguez hailed "an exceptional decision in exceptional circumstances".

In the first Libertadores final staged on European soil, River won 3-1 after Boca had Wilmar Barrios sent off for a reckless challenge.

The goal that Colombian midfielder Juan Fernando Quintero scored to put River in front in extra time was however typical of the finer side of South America football. Advertising hoardings in the stadium proclaimed "Libertadores, La Gloria Eterna" and few would argue with that.

In 2019, River Plate also looked on course to beat Flamengo in the first one-off final, held in Lima.

With only a minute remaining, Gabriel Barbosa equalised for Flamengo, then snatched a winner in the third minute of stoppage time. The drama was not yet over for in the 95th minute, River’s Exequiel Palacios was sent off for his challenge on Bruno Henriques and Barbosa followed him for sarcastically applauding the referee.

It was a finale in keeping with the tumultuous history of the competition. It was Flamengo’s first success since 1981, in the days of Zico.

Which brings us to 2020. Amongst the twists of this current tournament was a group encounter between the 1960 champions Peñarol and Jorge Wilstermann who they had played in that very first match. Except that this time, Wilstermann won.