This is the third in a four-part series chronicling international club tournaments in South America and Europe in the era before the Copa Libertadores and European Cup. Read part one here and part two here.
In the late 1940s, the president of the Chilean club Colo-Colo had the ambitious idea of hosting a competition featuring the winner of every South American league, a “Championship of Champions.” The Copa Libertadores was still over a decade away, and up to that point, international club competitions on the continent had been limited to the Rioplatense cups between Argentine and Uruguayan clubs.
The experiment was a stunning success. It drew nearly 450,000 supporters to its 21 matches and featured some of the best South American sides not just of the era, but in all of history.
Despite its success, the experiment was never repeated. The 1948 Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones in Santiago may have been a one-off event, but its impact on football on both sides of the Atlantic was massive.
The idea of continent-wide club competition in South America predates its implementation by decades. The organisation of a club competition across a culturally and geographically diverse continent that stretches over 7,500 kilometres north-to-south raised complex logistical, infrastructural, and financial challenges.
In 1929 the directors of Uruguayan club Nacional, José Usera Bermudez, and Roberto Espril, presented to the Uruguayan Football Association their plans for a South American tournament for clubs from countries affiliated with CONMEBOL. The idea, unsurprisingly, never got off the ground.
But by the 1940s, the rise of airlines greatly reduced travel times, making the proposal far more feasible. In 1946 Espril again considered his idea, and this time included the possibility of including not just the champions but the runners-up of every league as well.
He was beaten to the punch by Róbinson Álvarez, a Chilean football official then in his third spell as president of Colo-Colo. Several friendly tournaments featuring clubs from Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay had been held in Santiago in the early 1940s. But this time, the plans were on a much grander scale.
With the support of Luis Valenzuela, a fellow Chilean who was head of both the Football Federation of Chile and CONMEBOL, Álvarez sent invitations to the winners of every South American domestic league in 1947. In February of the following year, his vision became a reality.
Seven teams answered Álvarez’s invitation and entered the competition. Colo-Colo took part both as the hosts and the 1947 champions of the Chilean league. They were led by manager Enrique Sorrel, a former prolific striker at the club who scored 93 goals in 126 matches in twelve seasons with the club. Nicknamed ‘the Tiger,’ Sorrel led Colo-Colo to seven national titles as a player, including undefeated seasons in 1937 and 1941. After retiring in 1945, Sorrel was appointed manager in 1947 and duly led the club to another national crown.
Colo-Colo’s squad included Manuel Machuca, a legendary defender whose remains are now kept at the club’s dedicated mausoleum in Chile’s Cementerio General de Santiago. Machuca, along with Francisco Urroz, would feature for the Chilean national team at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
Bolivia lacked a national league at the time, but the country’s football scene was concentrated in La Paz, the capital. Bolivia’s representatives were Club Litoral, the winners of the 1947 La Paz Cup. Many of their players formed the core of Bolivia’s squad at that year’s South American Championship. Their star, however, was the Argentine-born striker Roberto Capparelli, who would go on to represent his adopted country at the 1950 World Cup.
Ecuador also lacked a professional national league, and were represented by Emelec. One of Ecuador’s most storied clubs, Emelec won the 1946 Guayaquil championship, considered the strongest of the country’s regional competitions.
The only team to refuse an invitation to the competition were Peruvian champions Atlético Chalaco. They were replaced by runners-up Deportivo Municipal, who won four national titles from 1938 – 1950. Municipal’s front three of Máximo Mosquera, Luis Caricho Gúzman, and Roberto Tito Drago were nicknamed “the three kittens.”
Nacional were Uruguay’s dominant team of the preceding decade and won five straight titles from 1939 – 1943, which included a hardly believable streak of 32 straight league victories. They again were Uruguayan champions in 1946 and 1947, and so received an invitation to go to Santiago. Nacional were led by the striker Walter Gómez, who scored over 100 goals for the club before eventually moving to River Plate and later Palermo in Italy. His move abroad came at an inopportune time – because Uruguay only selected domestic-based players for the national team, he missed out on the chance to become a world champion in 1950.
The competition’s standouts were undoubtedly River Plate and Vasco da Gama. The River Plate side of this era have gone down in history as La Máquina: the Machine. They won ten official titles in the 1940s, including four domestic league championships. This River Plate are considered pioneers of total football whose style of play resembled Hungary’s Magical Magyars of the 1950s and the Dutch Clockwork Orange of the 1970s.
La Máquina were led by a legendary front five of Juan Carlos Muñoz, José Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, Ángel Labruna and Félix Loustau. By 1948, Pedernera had moved to Huracán. His replacement in the squad that travelled to Santiago was none other than a 21-year-old Alfredo di Stéfano.
River Plate’s Brazilian counterparts were Vasco da Gama, who had their own nickname: O Expresso da Vitória, the Victory Express. They won five state titles from 1945 – 1952, including two undefeated seasons, as well as five other trophies. Vasco da Gama were also the first Brazilian side to use the influential 4-2-4 formation. Their stars were the goalkeeper Barbosa, who would be remembered primarily as a scapegoat for Brazil’s traumatic defeat to Uruguay at the 1950 World Cup, and the striker Ademir, who scored over 300 goals for the club.
Brazil was yet to establish a national league, but Vasco da Gama were champions of the state of Rio de Janeiro. A Rio de Janeiro selection defeated their São Paulo rivals in the 1946 Campeonato Brasileiro de Seleções Estaduais, a tournament for teams composed of the best players from each state. Vasco da Gama, therefore, received the nod to represent Brazil.
Despite their domestic dominance, Vasco was unfancied by the international press. Nacional and River Plate were the two favourites, a reflection of the enduring pre-eminence of Rioplatense football. Brazil, after all, had not won an international title for 26 years, their last trophy coming on home soil at the 1922 South American Championship.
Three countries were not represented. Colombia did not have a professional league until 1948, while the relative footballing backwater of Venezuela did not even become a member of CONMEBOL until four years later. The reasons behind Paraguay’s absence are unclear. The country suffered a civil war in 1947, but the national team still took part in that year’s South American Championship, where they finished second to Argentina.
On 11 February 1948, in front of 70,000 supporters at Santiago’s National Stadium, Colo-Colo and Emelec kicked off the first match of the Campeonato Sudamericao de Campeones. Emelec surprised the hosts to take a 2-0 lead, but Colo-Colo recovered to salvage a 2-2 draw.
For the Ecuadorian champions their early lead proved to be their high point of the tournament. They proceeded to lose their remaining five matches, including heavy defeats to River Plate, Deportivo Municipal, and Nacional. They finished in last place, with one point and a goal difference of minus 14.
Colo-Colo’s campaign was also a disappointment. They managed victories over Litoral and Nacional but suffered a surprise defeat to Deportivo Municipal and also lost to River Plate and drew with Vasco da Gama. There were reports of a tense climate in the changing room, made worse by the intense pressure of playing in front of their home support. Colo-Colo ended the competition with six points in fifth place.
Litoral were never considered a contender, and their victory over Emelec were their only points in the competition. This was enough, however, to lift them out of last place. Capparelli scored four goals, joint-second top scorer in the tournament. Though they won several more domestic titles in the immediate years following the tournament, Litoral’s fortunes then rapidly declined. Other than a solitary appearance at the Copa Libertadores in the 1960s, their success in the late 1940s and early 1950s and their appearance at the 1948 Campeonato is the high point of their history, and they currently compete in the third division of Bolivian football.
Peruvians Deportivo Municipal lost their first three matches, but these came against the three favourites of Nacional, River Plate, and Vasco da Gama. This string of defeats was followed by a 3-1 surprise victory over Colo-Colo and subsequent triumphs over both the Ecuadorians and Bolivians. They finished a respectable fourth and impressed with their technical, stylish football. For the Peruvians, this was also their golden age. Their last league title came in 1948, and since then they have meandered between the first and second tiers.
Among the favourites, Vasco won their first four matches, including a crucial 4-1 victory over Nacional. The Uruguayans recovered well, however, and won their next match 3-1 over Litoral. Their heavy 3-0 victory over River Plate on 4 March then dealt a massive blow to the title hopes of their Rioplatense rivals, who had started well with straightforward victories over Emelec and Municipal.
River Plate were given fresh hope when Colo-Colo managed to hold Vasco da Gama to a 1-1 draw on 8 March. They then comfortably defeated Litoral 5-1 the next day to set up a decisive showdown with the Brazilians.
The tournament thus came down to La Máquina against O Expresso da Vítoria. The legendary sides faced each other on 14 March, and even though River Plate were three points behind in the era of two points per victory, they had a game in hand. Victories in their last two matches would therefore be enough for them to win the tournament. For Vasco da Gama, this was their ultimate match, and a draw would suffice.
Despite the wealth of attacking talent on display, the match finished scoreless, and the Brazilians clinched the title. The Argentine press was not impressed, writing that Vasco won despite not demonstrating their superiority and complaining that their strategy was limited to preventing River Plate from playing.
A solitary Di Stéfano goal in River Plate’s last match against Colo-Colo ensured second place for La Máquina, as Nacional earlier fell 3-2 to the hosts. But River Plate’s chance at being crowned South America’s first champions was gone, surrendered to Vasco da Gama. The presidents of both Chile and Argentina were present at the award ceremony. In Brazil, the newly crowned champions of South America were received as heroes, and the press wrote that “the machine was Vasco.”
The Campeonato’s success had an immediate impact in South America. Several international club tournaments were held in its wake, some of which also included teams from Europe. The 1951 Copa Rio was the first intercontinental club tournament that featured clubs from Brazil, Austria, Uruguay, France, Yugoslavia, and Italy. It was a success, and was repeated in 1952.
The following year a group of Venezuelan businessmen organised “La pequeña Copa del Mundo de Clubes,” the little World Cup for clubs, which included local side La Salle, Botafogo of Brazil, Millonarios of Colombia, and Real Madrid, who won the competition.
Similar tournaments were held in Uruguay and Peru. Clearly, the demand was there for a South American club competition. The proposal was raised at the 1958 CONMEBOL Congress in Rio de Janeiro, and two years later the first Copa Libertadores took place with the national champions of seven South American countries: Peru and Ecuador were absent this time, replaced by representatives from Paraguay and Colombia.
The influence of the 1948 tournament was also felt in Europe. Jacques Ferran, a journalist for L’Équipe who was instrumental in organising the first European Cup, told the Brazilian television channel Globo Esporte in 2015:
“How is it that Europe, who wanted to be ahead of the rest of the world, was unable to create a competition in the mould of the South American championship? We needed to follow their example.”
Even though it has been widely reported that Ferran covered the competition in Santiago, he denied this in a 2018 interview with Chilean newspaper El Mercurio. Nevertheless, he still reaffirmed the tournament’s significance for Europe, saying that it accelerated the creation of the European Cup.
CONMEBOL recognises the Campeonato de Campeones as an official competition, and in 1997 Vasco da Gama were allowed to take part in the Supercopa Libertadores, a short-lived tournament exclusively featuring former champions of South America.
Now largely forgotten, the tournament is barely mentioned even in histories of South American football. This is unfortunate, as the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones of 1948 left an indelible mark on the development of both South American and European football.
Read part four here.