South America dominates Club World Cup despite traditional struggles
All major South American teams dream of winning the Club World Cup given the chance it offers at having a crack at the winners of the Champions League. But the tournament brings mixed memories for the continent.
It's true that there were Brazilian wins in the first two years as Sao Paulo and Internacional overcoming Liverpool and Barcelona respectively. Corinthians also beat Chelsea in 2012. But all were single-goal, backs-to-the-wall victories of teams who took the field with a game plan that recognised the superiority of the opposition.
At the other end of the scale, there have been some humiliations, most notably Barcelona's contemptuous 4-0 dismissal of Santos in 2011. Or the times when the South American side failed even to make the final: both Internacional and Atletico Mineiro fell to African opposition at the semifinal stage.
The truth is that the semifinal, traditionally a breeze for the European champions, has always proved a tough game for the Libertadores winners. Occasionally they can hold their own against the Europeans by adopting an ultra-conservative approach. But, against less rivals with less tradition, their limitations have always been shown up when asked to do something more expansive.
For a continent with such a proud footballing tradition, whose clubs sides until a couple of decades ago were the equal of anything Europe could throw at them, this can be hard to take. But there is another perspective through which the Club World Cup does much to highlight South America's contribution to the global game, a perspective made very clear by a glance at this year's semi finals.
Atletico Nacional of Colombia are preparing to take the field on Wednesday. They had probably been expecting to face Mamelodi Sundowns, the so-called "Brazilians of South Africa." But the sun set early on the African challenge; they were eliminated by Kashima Antlers of Japan, who have a couple of Brazilians of their own, defender Bueno and midfielder Fabricio. Atletico Nacional's 23-man party, meanwhile, is almost exclusively South American. Reserve centre-back Roderick Miller is from neighbours Panama and the rest of the group is made up of 20 Colombians and two Argentines.
The continent will also be strongly represented in the second semifinal on Thursday. America of Mexico might more accurately be named "South America" of Mexico. In Sunday's 2-1 quarterfinal win over Jeonbuk Hyundai of South Korea, an extraordinary eight of their starting XI (plus one of the substitutes) came from South America, with representatives from Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, will parade left-back Marcelo and holding midfielder Casemiro, both important players in Brazil's national team along with their compatriot, reserve right-back Danilo. Also in their squad is James Rodriguez, star attacking midfielder of the Colombian national team and the leading footballing idol back home. And so, in a possible final between Atletico Nacional and Real Madrid, the high profile Colombian will be wearing the colours of the European champions.
Of all the players in the squads of the four Club World Cup semifinalists, South America has produced more than 40 percent. No other continent comes close -- and no continent could possibly withstand the constant selling of most of its best players without a drop in quality.
Whatever happens between now and Sunday's final, it will be a South American story.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.