The Copa Libertadores is perhaps the only competition that features every element one could ever ask for in a soccer tournament.
As the South American equivalent of the Champions League, it features high-level players and coaches, with plenty of games dependent on which side wins a tactical chess match. But there's a bit more individual flair allowed in South America, so games can devolve into organized 11 vs. 11 games of H.O.R.S.E. as well.
There's also plenty of potential hatred involved. Cross-nation rivalries between South American teams can get seriously heated, while domestic rivalries can show up in the competition as well. Boca Juniors and River Plate are both involved in the competition and could face off at some point, as could Cruzeiro and Atletico Mineiro, or Corinthians and Sao Paulo.
This competition also allows fans to get a first glimpse at the biggest stars of tomorrow. Neymar went from child prodigy to world's top prospect due to his dominance in this competition for Santos FC, while James Rodriguez put himself on the map with his performances as a teenager for Banfield. Most of these clubs will hand game time to talented teenagers, and one or two of them will go on to become some of the best players at Europe's top clubs.
And last, but not least, Copa Libertadores has weird things. There's stuff like coaches pulling their goalkeeper for tactical reasons and getting punched by said goalkeeper. Stuff like massive brawls at the end of championship games, after the final whistle blows. Stuff like fans running onto the pitch to hug Ronaldinho. Stuff like players kicking pitch-invading fans.
It has everything, and the qualifying rounds start on Tuesday. Here's what you need to know about this year's Copa Libertadores.
Last year's Libertadores was a split-up competition in a World Cup year, which produced some weirdness. Three of the four semifinalists were not traditionally big teams, and the two finalists were the two lowest-seeded teams in the knockout stage. Non-World Cup years are usually a bit different.
Argentina's best hope to win the tournament for a second year in a row are River Plate, the winners of South America's less prestigious continental competition, the Copa Sudamericana. They finished second in the most recent tournament in Argentina, and qualified for the Libertadores by winning the 2014 Clausura.
River have this competition's deepest stable of youth talent -- six members of Argentina's South American Youth Championship team are on their books -- to go along with some excellent veterans and more Europe-ready youngsters like 23-year-olds Ezequiel Cirigliano and Ramiro Funes Mori, along with 21-year-old Colombian World Cup veteran Eder Alvarez Balanta. But perhaps their biggest star is Balanta's countryman, Teofilo Gutierrez, who has 16 goals over his last two domestic tournaments for River.
São Paulo are arguably Brazil's best contender, and they make their return to the Libertadores after missing out on the tournament over the last few years. This is a familiar field for the Tricolor, who have won the tournament three times. They struggled a lot domestically in 2012 and 2013, facing the dangers of relegation for a substantial portion of the Brasileirão, but they're back on their feet after bringing back one of the most successful managers in their recent history.
Muricy Ramalho conducted a rebuilding process, bringing a lot of changes to the roster and introducing tactical innovations. A team that once relied too much on set pieces and didn't value possession at all started displaying a beautiful style, combining ball control with killer passing and player movement, which led to a resurgence of the team and second place in last year's edition of the Brazilian league.
Milan legend Kaká was a huge part of that amazing campaign in 2014, but he's gone to MLS. That doesn't mean São Paulo is doomed to failure in 2015; goalkeeper Rogério Ceni decided to return for one more year, and he is the glue of the team, a true leader and a club legend. The supporting cast, headlined by players like Paulo Henrique Ganso, Michel Bastos and Alexandre Pato, is ultra-talented. Their home games are a spectacle, with the Morumbi Stadium always sold out for Libertadores games, and the atmosphere for international São Paulo matches is always incredible.
Young players to watch
Giovanni Simeone (FW, River Plate) - The son of Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone is currently the hottest of River's crazy group of top kids. He's the leading scorer in the South American Youth Championships right now, with seven goals. Second best? Four. Not bad for the son of a tough-tackling defensive midfielder.
Cristian Espinoza (FW, Huracan) - Espinoza might play for the weakest of the Argentinian teams in Copa Lib, but that's also why he's one of the most experienced teenagers in this tournament. Espinoza usually plays out on the right wing, and he already has a couple season's worth of pro games under his belt. He's only 19, but he's more Europe-ready than most 22-year-olds in the Libertadores.
Gaston Gil Romero (MF, Estudiantes) - The modern central midfielder is a player who's asked to do a bit of everything, and Romero fits the mold. He's not a true holder or playmaker, but an energetic and intelligent player who's a solid passer and ball-winner. He's versatile, and his value in the future will be his ability to fit into virtually any kind of team.
Adrian Centurion (MF, Sao Paulo) - The 22-year-old midfielder led Racing to a rare Argentine championship. His skill level and quickness were overwhelming for Argentina's top teams, and he became a star. After being almost sold to everywhere, he finally landed at São Paulo. Although his new club doesn't have a great track record when it comes to foreign player success, his ability to score, dribble and create are enough to prove he is a great signing for a title contender. And with Kaka gone, he should get chances to shine.
Auro (DF, Sao Paulo) - Auro, a 19-year-old right back, is one of the most promising players to come out of São Paulo's youth system in a long time. He earned a promotion to the senior team last year and impressed with his offensive awareness, speed and passing. His lack of defensive contributions led to his benching at the end of 2014, but his coach has praised him for his off-season work. Auro could finally become a regular piece of the starting lineup, and he might be a big surprise in the Libertadores.
Malcom (FW, Corinthians) - The Corinthians support striker became a starter at the end of 2014, and he delivered an exciting set of performances with his defensive skills, goal-scoring ability and work ethic. He is going to be 18 in a few days, which is absolutely nuts. The coaching change at Corinthians and a new style of play could favor a player with his characteristics, and he's a potential breakout star in 2015. He's been the biggest shining star on Brazil's South American Youth Championships team.
Eduardo Henrique (MF, Atletico Mineiro) - When Atlético Mineiro was destroyed by injuries late last year, coach Levir Culpi was forced to look to his youth system in search of a midfielder. He found Eduardo Henrique, a defensive midfielder that showed a lot of promise but didn't have many opportunities with the previous senior team coaches. Under Culpi, Eduardo gained confidence and absolutely owned his spot from then on. He's a fierce defender who also has a sweet passing game. He's a bit raw, which is understandable since he's 19, but there's a lot of room for improvement.
Cristian Cuevas (LM/LB, Universidad de Chile) - One of numerous Chelsea youth players on loan around the globe, Cuevas has stalled slightly since leaving O'Higgins. But he did start to get some significant time in against adults in the Dutch Ereste Divisie, and could be a key player for La U in this tournament. He's been one of Chile U-20's top players for nearly three years now, and his ability to play as a wide forward or left back gives La U manager Martín Lasarte a lot of options.
Sergio Diaz (FW, Cerro Porteño) - Perhaps the biggest youth prospect in the history of Paraguayan football, Diaz is already a spectacular player for Cerro and Paraguay U-20, despite having just turned 16 in December. He's a very complete forward despite his small size and young age, which has led to comparisons to Sergio Aguero. He might sign for one of Europe's biggest clubs before he even plays in the tournament.
Danilo Santacruz (FW, Libertad) - Santacruz has arguably stalled a tad since bursting on the scene, but the 19-year-old wide man is still one of the best teenage talents likely to get regular playing time in the Libertadores, and he can earn himself a big move with an excellent tournament. He's a powerful winger with some experience playing inside as well, and he's got a solid goal-scoring record for a wide player.
Brayan Rovira (MF, Atletico Nacional) - Most of Colombia's top youth talent is either on smaller clubs or already in Europe, but Rovira has a chance to make a name for himself in the Libertadores. He can play in the center of midfield or a bit farther up the pitch, and his ability to play two positions could lead to some opportunities to come off the bench. Atletico Nacional are a very experienced team and can afford to give an 18-year-old prospect some games among the adults.
Gaston Pereiro (MF, Nacional) - A promising 19-year-old, Pereiro is a talented midfielder with a wide range of skills, and his performances have drawn interest from big clubs from Europe like Atlético Madrid and Juventus. A capable scorer and a smart passer, he usually beats his opponents with his speed and intelligent changes of pace, and while the squad around him is not good enough to compete for a deep run in the Libertadores, he's good enough to have success and pack his bags to Europe.
San Lorenzo unlikely to repeat
After shocking the world and winning last year's Libertadores, San Lorenzo fought and gave Real Madrid a hard time in the Club World Cup final, last December. They have the tools to try and repeat this season, but that's probably not happening. San Lorenzo had the bad luck of being drawn into a group with title favorite São Paulo. Want more? Another Brazilian title hopeful, Corinthians, will likely join them, which makes it a near-impossible task for the reigning champions to even survive the group stage, let alone surprise everybody for the second straight season and go all the way to the trophy matches.. Fool me twice, shame on me.
The dark horses
When it comes to the Libertadores, never discount any Brazilian team -- Sao Paulo aren't the only ones who can win it all. Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro dominated Brazilian football last year, with the former winning the Brasileirão and losing to Atlético in the Brazil Cup final. With the 2014 version of their rosters, they both would join River Plate and São Paulo as the main favorites to win the title. Many of their top players have been sold, but they still have talented and well-coached players who can win it if given a chance by the big boys.
On a level below them are Internacional and Corinthians. They're winners of three of the last eight cups, but are not as talented and deep as their compatriots this season. Corinthians still need to get past the qualifying stage, but they're big favorites to make it through. They'll have to face São Paulo and San Lorenzo in group play, and it will not be easy for them to reach the knockout round. But if they do, then they'll prove that they have what it takes to be champions.
It would be surprising to see either Racing or Huracan make a deep run in the Libertadores, but Argentinian sides Boca Juniors and Estudiantes certainly have a shot. Boca are loaded with experienced players and just added a pair of Uruguayans late in the transfer window to boost their squad, Nicolas Lodeiro and Alexis Rolin. Estudiantes aren't nearly as deep as Boca, but the midfield pair of Gaston Gil Romero and Roman Martinez is one of the best in the competition, and teams with an established partnership of that quality in the center usually go far.
Atlético Nacional lost to River Plate in the Copa Sudamericana, and their run in that tournament last year proved that they can be tough to beat, especially at home. They have a good mix of youth and experience and are likely to surprise a big club somewhere along the way. Universidad de Chile are also a threat to make a deep run every year. They're coming off an Apertura win in Chile, and most of their players have participated in the knockout stage of this tournament many times.
Mexican sides have geared up
Mexico is not in South America and does not compete in CONMEBOL, but back in 1998, everyone realized they were missing out on an opportunity to make a lot of money. Mexico has a huge TV market and their teams love to play in the Libertadores. They've played in the competition since and everyone's gotten richer for it.
Unfortunately, Mexico is really far away from South America, and the travel is brutal. Teams that don't rotate heavily between their weekend domestic game and mid-week Libertadores game when traveling to or from Mexico generally get beat up, so most don't try it. They usually write off one competition or the other. But this year's Liga MX participants seem to have prepared for what they're about to go through.
Almost every Mexican team that's done well in the Libertadores has all but written off the domestic league that season, but Monarcas Morelia, UANL Tigres and Club Atlas won't necessarily have to do that. All three of those clubs stocked up big over the winter and now have the biggest squads in Liga MX. They can all rotate most of their squad, if not all 11 players around travel days and still remain competitive on two fronts.
Santos Laguna almost pulled off something great last year, falling in the semifinals of the Liguilla and Round of 16 of the Libertadores. Can one of these teams better that achievement? They certainly have deep enough squads to pull it off.
The bad guys: Boca Juniors
Say hello to the bad guys. Every good tournament needs someone who everyone can root against, and Boca takes the cake this year. Do not flip on the TV expecting to see Juan Roman Riquelme leading a team playing fast and fluid football. Those days are over. This is a team of jerks.
This is what they did to Adrian Centurion in a PRESEASON FRIENDLY.
That was the second sending off and third booking for a foul on Centurion in the first half-hour of that game.
In the Libertadores play-in game against Velez Sarsfield, they sat back in a defensive shell after scoring the opening goal and instigated a string of three red cards with this shoving incident. The game only took place because Boca threw a fit about some ambiguous rules even though they didn't need to force that play-in game to make the Libertadores -- they had another avenue in.
Boca are going to kick and claw and get red cards and grind out results that they have no business grabbing. And it's going to be awesome, because what's a competition without a bad guy?
Okay, so how do I watch this?
Most games are on FOX Deportes in the United States. They'll pick one game to show live when there's more than one in a timeslot and will usually broadcast replays of the other ones. Qualifying starts on February 3 and group stage play on February 18. Here's a qualifying schedule from Wikipedia.