Copa Libertadores Femenina Manaus 2018 round-up.
In stark contrast to the surreal hyper-mediatised farce surrounding this year’s male Libertadores final, its sister tournament, the Copa Libertadores Femenina, even in Manaus the self-proclaimed capital of Women’s Football in Brazil, remains pitifully low profile.
Whilst endless comparison between men’s and women’s football is at times unhelpful, the chasm in institutional investment from Conmebol and national federations is crucial to maintaining the status-quo. Indeed, for the uninitiated the spectacle of watching Paraguayan women’s champions Cerro Porteño kick off with Argentinean champions UAI Urquiza in the opening game at the 45,000 capacity Arena da Amazônia in front of barely 100 people was a sobering insight into the plight of the women’s football on the continent and a reality check vis-à-vis occasional high attendances in certain circumstances. In this instance, the glaring lack of interest in games not involving the hosts suggested marketing of Manaus as the ‘capital of women’s football’is just that – and that high attendances there are driven largely by regionalism and not as we would wish – by a love of the women’s game per se.
A haphazardly organised 2-week tournament with 3 groups of 4 incorporating 10 national champions, a host team and last year’s defending champions evidenced notable progress on a continental level. Particularly Venezuelan champions Flor de Patria and Ecuadorian champions Unión Española proved tougher opponents than many expected. Whilst the vast strides made by modestly resourced amateur clubs is laudable, the ambivalence of organising bodies in promoting women’s football was glaringly obvious and reflected poorly on those concerned. Indeed, with little advertising within the host city and tickets for the event only released 48 hours before the big kick off, the melancholic sight of a missed opportunity in one of Brazil’s numerous white elephant stadiums left battle-weary players with only a resigned sense of deja-vu at the painfully slow progress/stasis of club football on the continent. That said, however, on the pitch the tournament was a huge success. Evidencing increasing balance in the levels of teams, three of the four semi final berths were resolved only on goals scored with goal difference tied.
In group A, the host team, Iranduba, barely stumbled through their group even with the presence of big-name short-term recruits from the NWSL (US Women’s League), Andressinha, Camilinha and Raquel. Indeed, it took 100 minutes, including an additional couple of minutes in addition to the unprecedented 8 minutes injury time at the end of the final group game for the host side to finally break the resolve of a highly impressive UAI Urquiza of Argentina. The Argentine outfit were left to rue a presentable opportunity to put the game beyond Iranduba at 1-0, along with the arcane nebulous machinations of officials who didn’t extend any other game beyond the customary 4 or 5 minutes stoppage time. Elsewhere in the group, debutants Flor de Patria of Venezuela took Iranduba to the limit in the opening game and even had a decisive influence in the group by preventing Cerro Porteño qualification by defeating them 3-0 in the final game.
Perhaps the most interesting group saw Atlético Huila of Colombia oust last year’s winners Audax on goals scored. In the final round of games, with all 4 teams deadlocked on 3 points, Audax, inspired by the hugely promising Kerolin, dispatched Uruguayan champions Penarol 4-0 leaving the Colombian champions Huila needing 3 goals against Ecuadorian champions Unión Española to progress. After an insipid first half, with the score 0-0 and hopes fading the Colombian champions went for broke with the introduction of their silky playmaker Yoreli Rincón, who presumably was carrying a knock. Inspiring the team with a goal and a hand in the other two, Colombia’s best known female player was instrumental in an unlikely but stirring resurgence of a team that looked dead and buried. Inept officiating meant Yoreli Rincón and Liana Salazar both picked up two highly dubious bookings ruling her out of the semi final showdown with hosts Iranduba. This would give the Colombian side an opportunity to show what a strong collective they are, personified by the full-blooded will to win of the combative Argentinean Aldana Cometti.
Only Group B, then, suffered from a disappointing sense of inevitability about it with strong favourites Santos and last year’s finalists Colo Colo picking up 9 and 6 points respectively to take winner and the one strongest runner up berth, meaning they would meet again at the semi final stage. The most interesting game was a topsy-turvy clash between the two evenly balanced makeweights in the group, JC Sport Girls of Lima and Deportivo Ita of Bolivia. The former came out on top by three goals to two. Santos were the only team to emerge from the group stage without difficulties registering maximum points in three straightforward victories. Brena, Maria and Sandrinha in particular shone for Sereias da Vila, whilst their solid defence was left relatively untested.
For the semi final, ringing the changes in light of a suspension to talisman Djeni Becker, Iranduba opted for Cris in the midfield engine room and the pace and trickery of Mayara on the wing. The changes reaped dividends when a spontaneous effort from Mayara crept past Daniela Solera in the Colombian goal to the delight of an ever-growing crowd. The Colombians dug in, however, and it was of little surprise (to all but the most presumptuous) when they scrambled home a scruffy equaliser to heap pressure on the hosts and favourites in a penalty shoot out. Replicating the trauma of a shoot out miss in the 2016 Olympics for Brazil against Sweden, history repeated itself for Iranduba’s creative fulcrum Andressinha, who in missing, handed the initiative to the indefatigable Colombian outfit. Huila held their nerve netting all their penalties as Iranduba crumbled, as the Arena da Amazônia fell silent. The hubris of numerous Brazilian commentators, fixated with an all-Brazilian final gave way to lament as the hosts faced up to the ignominy of finishing with a battle for 3rd place rather than their dream Brazilian final. True to form, a characteristically myopic Brazilian footballing analysis claimed their side had lost to itself rather than the opposition, taking little note of the fact Iranduba had won only once in four attempts (they would go on to draw again in the 3rd place game) and of the sheer determination and magnificence of the relatively modestly resourced Colombian outfit.
Both spurred on by Huila’s achievement and driven by pragmatism after the teams’ first meeting, Chilean champions Colo Colo set out to frustrate much-fancied Santos. The plan worked for an hour – threatening on the break through the diminutive Venezuelan Karla Torres and Yessenia Huenteo the Chilean outfit almost broke the deadlock only to concede two quick goals to substitute Chú Santos to dash their hopes. After a competitive hour of well executed cautious football from the Chileans, Santos took control ending the game in full command and adding a third goal through Sandrinha to leave the winning margin looking as comfortable as the opening game between the sides, when Santos ran out comfortable winners.
After an entertaining aperitif which, after yet another Iranduba draw, saw the athletic and imposing Iranduba goalkeeper Rubi save all of Colo Colo’s penalties to earn Iranduba third place, the grand final saw favourites Santos take on gutsy Atlético Huila. In the opening minute, yet another excellent long-range strike from the impressive Brena saw Santos take the lead and largely control the first half. Much like in Huila’s semi-final however, the Colombians managed to remain just one goal behind, leaving the possibility for them to gain a foothold in the game. In the second half they quickly levelled after a dangerous delivery from Yoreli Rincón, and successfully nullified the Santos threat for the rest of the game. Having won one shoot-out without missing a penalty, there was a sense of inevitability about the ensuing shoot-out. Highly talented Santos youngster Angelina’s penalty was saved by Daniela Solera, allowing the emblematic Yoreli Rincón the opportunity to gleefully smash home the winning penalty. The victory was especially poignant for the Colombian women, given the mere existence of their recent established professional league is under threat due to a lack of sponsorship. Whilst theoretically obligated to run a league in some form by Conmebol, the pressure to fund and promote it properly will surely be increased by this heroic victory.
The quality of the tournament meant multiple sides battling for qualification and left a strong impression that an enlarged format akin to the male competition incorporating more sides from each country (particularly Brazil, Argentina and Colombia) could be viable from a footballing perspective. From an economic perspective, despite the disingenuous lip-service paid to the women’s game, the last minute slapdash organisation of the tournament allied to the infinitesimally minute budget apportioned to women’s football by large clubs, and national and continental federations alike suggest such an expansion is not on the cards.
Beyond partisan club representation, players rally collectively for much deserved visibility and recognition for the ever increasing standard of Women’s competition. Their performance at this tournament can’t be faulted. The same can’t be said for the intransigent leadership of Women’s Football who ensure that, for many, this article is the first and last you will know about the 2018 Copa Libertadores Femenina in Manaus.
Written by Mark Biram
Twitter & Instagram – @markbiram
Manaus, Brazil. 3rd December 2018