Definitive table of the 2023 edition of the Copa Libertadores, after the draw held in Asunción, Paraguay, March 2023 (Photo: REUTERS/Cesar Olmedo)
What first caught my eye about the Copa Libertadores was, many years ago, the start of each television broadcast. Before the ball starts rolling, when the players are still in the changing rooms, the broadcast forgets for a few moments about the game that is about to start and concentrates on the geography: during those seconds, the cameras (not the ones that are located next to the field of play, but the ones at the top of each grandstand) focus on what is outside the stadium and show the varied American terrain. It is just a flash that the director of cameras gives us: in the games of Deportes Iquique you can see the immense dune that surrounds that city, in the games of Cienciano you can glimpse the tense Andean slopes, in the games of Rosario Central you can distinguish the Parana, and so on.
In this way, discovering fleeting landscapes as the time of the match drew closer, I fell in love with the Copa Libertadores. And that’s why I wanted to write a book that rescued the geographical magic of the tournament.
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Since writing a whole book talking about mountains and watercourses was impossible for me, I started going to Copa Libertadores matches. The first one I went to was Deportes Tolima against Corinthians. It was played in 2011 in Ibagué (Colombia) and Tolima eliminated the Brazilians; it was the last match of Ronaldo Nazário da Lima. I remember that behind one of the heads a green mountain rose, imposing. And I also remember that at the end of the game I left the stadium and the surrounding esplanade was full of food vendors (I didn’t know any of the dishes they offered) and a crowd of people from Tolima who were taking the opportunity to have dinner. This seemed incredible to me: for me, finishing a Copa Libertadores game simply meant turning off the television or starting to watch the next game; I had never suspected that around each game there was also a whole reality.
At that moment, the Copa Libertadores began to seem interesting to me, not only because of the geography that surrounds it, but also because of all the cultural differences that television cannot show.
Immersing yourself in American geography arose from the excuse of a continental soccer competition like the Copa Libertadores
A few years later I traveled to Luque (Paraguay) to see the match in which Boca was going to visit Capiatá for the Copa Sudamericana. The South American is an international contest similar to the Libertadores, although with less tradition and importance. Boca had lost against Capiatá in La Bombonera and had to go to Paraguay to turn the series around.
I traveled to Asunción by bus. We left Retiro, made a stop in Talar de Pacheco and then headed steadily north. From that point the road was covered with palm trees: its tropical omen and the Paraná river running parallel to the road confirmed to me that we were heading towards Paraguay.
Back in Asunción, I left my belongings in a hostel and took another bus that took me to Luque, where the game was to be played the next day. As I approached the Feliciano Cáceres stadium, I found that under the stands, within the very structure of the stadium, there was, in addition to the window where the ticket was purchased, a gym, a dentist’s office, a women’s clothing boutique, a computer institute, a print shop, a restaurant and a furniture store.
An unusual postcard from the remembered final in Madrid-2018: in the vicinity of the Bernabéu, the desired Copa Libertadores appears resting on the ground
I bought the ticket and sat down for lunch in the restaurant. First I wanted to wash my hands: they showed me the way to the bathroom and, to my surprise, next to the sink there was a small window through which you could see, a few meters away, the line of lime and one of the arches.
Then I went around the stadium, went through an open door and ended up on the field of play. I went back and forth between the areas, wandering, and the hours passed as if nothing: I was discovering, at that moment, the sweetness of the Paraguayan afternoon. There was no one else. Sometimes I thought that in Buenos Aires (in the cafes, at the service stations and on the television channels) they would be talking about the game the next day. But the only person who was there, at the scene, was me. I liked that. Then a club employee appeared: he explained to me that his job was to cover the stadium’s own advertising posters, the ones that are fixed in the stands, with sheets of black plastic, very similar to garbage bags. I asked him why they covered the advertisements and he replied that they did so by Conmebol regulations: the only advertisements that had to remain visible were those of the competition, while those that the club had contracted directly had to be hidden. Later that same employee invited me a tereré and took a photo of me.
That afternoon I found out that the Libertadores and the South American are made of small details and almost invisible protagonists.
The author drinking tereré on the field of Sportivo Luqueño, Paraguay
I kept traveling through the stadiums of America but I still didn’t know what the book I wanted to write was like. Then Atlético Tucumán qualified for the Copa Libertadores for the first time and finished showing me the way.
I went to San Miguel de Tucumán to see the team’s first international match; when the crowd dispersed, the stands were left bare and, written on the stands, an inscription could be seen that had remained hidden by the fans. They had painted it for the team’s participation in the contest and it said “Tucumán – América”.
I knew a little about Tucuman history and I knew that, before being an Argentine province and looking towards Buenos Aires, Tucumán had formed part of the Viceroyalty of Peru and had looked towards Lima. And that before that he had been part of the Captaincy of Chile and had looked towards Santiago. And that before that it had been part of the Inca empire and had looked towards Cuzco. In this sense, before being an Argentine province, Tucumán had been connected to other American contexts. Therefore, for Atlético Tucumán to leave Argentina, play in the Copa Libertadores and visit other countries was not so much a novelty as a return to its origins. At one point, the football fact reflected the history of the place.
On the field of Atlético Tucumán, it reads Tucumán América 1
Then I knew that this was the book I wanted to write: a travel book for the Copa Libertadores that would show the geography and culture of the continent and that would also tell the history of each place through soccer events. For example: a graffiti on a grandstand .
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