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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 February 2008, 12:10 GMT
Tim Vickery column
Tim Vickery
By Tim Vickery
South American football reporter

The Uefa Champions League trophy is currently on tour in South America.

Last weekend it was on view in Sao Paulo, and moves on to Rio de Janeiro before heading on to Buenos Aires and Santiago.

Alfredi di Stefano
Di Stefano won five European Cups playing for Real Madrid

Nothing could be more appropriate than the top prize in the European game doing the rounds in South America. It feels as if football is coming home.

It is easy to take the wealth and prestige of the Champions League for granted. But a little more than 50 years ago, when the European Cup got off the ground, it was a step in the dark.

Economically and psychologically, Europe was still recovering from the Second World War. Was there really a future for a competition for the continent's leading clubs?

In 1955 it was a gamble. By 1960 it was a sure thing. The reason for the change - Alfredo di Stefano.

One of the last and probably the greatest product of the golden age in Argentine football, the 1940s, Di Stefano, after a spell in Colombia, landed at Real Madrid in 1953.

Then he showed Europe attacking football of a technical and tactical quality that the continent had never seen before. He led Real to victory in the first five European Cups, and the manner of the triumphs set off a fever for football in general and for this competition in particular.

As a quick example, without Di Stefano, Bobby Charlton may not have developed into such a fine player. The great Argentine became his inspiration.

Di Stefano, of course, had a fine supporting cast and some of them were from his home continent; there was his compatriot Hector Rial, also in the forward line, the Uruguayan Jose Santamaria dominant at centre half and the Brazilian Canario on the wing.

In South America it is easy to spot European club shirts - and this increasingly includes the big four from the Premiership

So there is nothing new about the importance of South America's contribution to Europe's premier club competition. What is relatively recent is the sheer quantity of South Americans now making their living with top European clubs.

And the belief that, wherever he is from, a player cannot be considered truly world class until he has proved his worth in the Champions League.

The South American public's relationship with the competition has also changed over the last 15 years or so. Now there is blanket coverage of the Champions League, often including free-to-air as well as cable TV.

The audience is limited by the fact that the games take place in the afternoon, but as people leave work they gather in bars to follow the action.

It hasn't replaced local football as the number one attraction, but the quality of the players on show guarantees a significant level of interest.

The relationship between some of the fans and the European teams has also changed.

Fifteen years ago in the streets of Rio, for example, wearing a Barcelona shirt was a gesture of support for Romario, or a La Coruna shirt showed an identification with Bebeto. The focus was on the star compatriot playing abroad.

Sir Bobby Charlton
Di Stefano became Sir Bobby Charlton's inspiration

A decade and an half later there are South American fans who have built up a stronger identification with the European club, who cheer for Barcelona or whoever regardless of who is in the team.

Just as the globalisation of the game has left many people in Europe wandering round in the shirt of the Brazilian national team, so in South America it is easy to spot European club shirts - and this increasingly includes the big four from the Premiership, all of whom now have South American talent in their line up.

In fact 2007/8 could well go down as the season in which South American players really made the breakthrough in English football, as they did years ago in all the other major European leagues.

It could even turn out that a South American kid taken to look at the Champions League trophy on its current tour might in a few years time help an English club to win it.

You can put your questions to Tim Vickery every week on the World Football Phone-in on Radio 5 Live's Up All Night programme from 0230 to 0400 GMT every Saturday. You can also download last week's World Football Phone-in Podcast.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Got a question about South American football for Tim Vickery? Email him at vickerycolumn@hotmail.com

I read your report on 6ft 4 inch striker Franco Di Santo with mild disbelief. I can recall few Argentine strikers (Palermo and Batistuta excepted ) of such proportions.

It seems to me that Argentina produces a remarkable number of short, squat strikers and playmakers (Ortega, Aimar, Tevez, Messi and now, Aguero) rather than those who are tall and powerful.

Is this merely my imagination? If not, what would you say are the reasons for this trend? Is this merely a statistical fact of general football-playing population? Is it what I would call the Maradona effect? i.e. the Argentine coaches search for players of Maradonesque stature?

Moreover, is this phenomenon recent? The 1978 team had Kempes and Luque leading the forward line. But as you have often noted, in recent years Brazil have had the wood over their neighbours for reasons of power rather than skill.
Sean D'Souza

The tall, target man striker is a part of Argentine footballing culture - think of Crespo and Cruz at Inter Milan, for example.

But the shorter, stockier frame is the build of many South Americans.

In the case of Argentina there's an ideological factor as well - they have stuck with traditional virtues which prize players with a low centre of gravity.

But Brazil have been more concerned with matching the Europeans in physical terms and then hoping their technique will make the difference.

One player that i heard a lot about around a year ago was a young Brazilian called Kerlon. I have seen some videos of him and the "seal dribble" looked amazing!

However, his attention seems to have died down and I just wondered whether you could update me on his progress? Is he one to look out for in the future?
Michael Salliss

Ronaldo is not the only one with persistent knee problems.

Kerlon missed much of last year after breaking down, and it's happened again this year - another operation needed, and he'll be out for most of 2008.

He was an Under-17 star, he's now 20 and we're still waiting for his senior breakthrough.



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