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Fanzone focus -- Copa Libertadores, South America

  • Story Highlights
  • This year is the 50th birthday of South American football's Copa Libertadores
  • The competition has been dominated by Argentine and Brazilian teams
  • Liberdatores tends to be less predictable than Europe's Champions League
  • This year's semi finals include teams from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay
By Mark Tutton
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- This year is the 50th birthday of the Copa Libertadores, South American football's equivalent of Europe's Champions League.

Argentina's Boca Juniors salute their fans before a Copa Libertadores match against Uruguay's Defensor Sporting.

Argentina's Boca Juniors salute their fans before a Copa Libertadores match against Uruguay's Defensor Sporting.

The Libertadores is the most prestigious tournament in South American club football, seeing the best 32 teams in the continent battle for supremacy.

It may not get as much attention as the Champions League, but for South American teams there is no bigger trophy.

The tournament has reached semifinal stage, where Gremio and Cruzeiro from Brazil will clash with Argentina's Estudiantes and Uruguay's Nacional - a team captained by former Inter Milan star Juan Sebastian Veron.

So with the action reaching a crescendo, it's high-time Fanzone explored what makes the compeition so great.

History

The competition was first held in 1960, its name referring to the "liberators" who led South American countries in their wars of independence.

For years it was dominated by Argentina, with a team from the country making it to every final between 1963 to 1979, and Buenos Aires team Independiente winning six times in that period.

Since the early '90s, it's been the Brazilian clubs that have excelled. Brazil has provided 10 Libertadores finalists in the last 10 years, but since the tournament's inception, every country except Peru and Mexico has supplied a winner.

Qualification

Under current quotas Brazil and Argentina both supply five teams for the tournament, while Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela are each represented by three teams, with the previous year's winner also qualifying.

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Each country has different qualifying criteria for its clubs but essentially, the winners of South America's top domestic leagues, as well as some runners up, qualify for the Libertadores. They are joined by three teams invited from Mexico (which is not a member of CONMEBOL, the South American Football Confederation).

Better than Europe?

In terms of football quality, most would agree that the Libertadores struggles to match the Champions League and the reason is simple -- South American clubs simply don't have the money to hold onto their best players.

Despite this, the Libertadores is still the place where some of the world's best players cut their footballing teeth. The likes of Ronaldinho and Carlos Tevez once shone in the Libertadores, as did past masters like Pele and Zico.

Which do you think is better, the Copa Libertadores or the Champions League? Sound Off below.

While the tournament may lack big-name players, in other ways the Libertadores is as every bit as tough as the Champions League. Alexander Bellos is the author of "Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life." He told CNN that in the Libertadores, teams often have to travel huge distances for away matches.

It can take a Brazilian club 24 hours to get to a match in Mexico, leaving little time for pre-match preparation or training. Some teams play their matches at high altitude, which can be a grueling experience for visiting teams not used to the thin air.

Bellos says these factors can combine to make the Libertadores less predictable than the Champions League, as can the fact that clubs regularly lose their best players to Europe, meaning their squads can change drastically from one season to the next.

As in the Champions League, big clubs, like Argentina's Boca Juniors and Brazil's Sao Paolo, usually make the final stages, but last year's winners were unheralded Ecuadorian club LBS Quito.

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