Last season's top 38 South American clubs now know exactly what they have to do if they are to emulate Brazil's Sao Paulo and win one of the continent's most prestigious trophies, the Copa Libertadores.
Thursday night's ceremony in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción saw a host of top footballing personalities from South America and further afield look on in anticipation as CONMEBOL General Secretary Eduardo Deluca made the draw for this year's Copa Libertadores.
Among the special guests was Jorge Burruchaga, coach of Argentine side Estudiantes de La Plata, who as a player was a FIFA World Cup™ winner in Mexico 86 with Argentina and also won the 1984 edition of the Copa Libertadores with Independiente. Also causing a stir was local hero Julio dos Santos, the rising star of Paraguayan football currently starring for Cerro Porteño. Both looked on eagerly as the draw for the first round was made, swiftly followed by that of the second round group stage, which will consist of eight groups.
Tried and tested
The 2006 Copa Libertadores will follow the exact same format as the previous year. Of the 38 teams involved, 12 of those will go head to head in a two-legged first-round tie to be played on 25 January and 1 February. The six teams that emerge victorious will reach the second group phase, made up of eight groups of four teams, which will take place between 8 February and 19 April.
The top two in each group qualify for the last sixteen, which will take the form of a two-legged knockout game, as in the first round. The knockout system will continue all the way through to the Final with the games being played on the following dates: last sixteen (26 April and 3 May); quarter-finals (10 and 17 May); semi-finals (19 and 26 July); Final (2 and 9 August).
The quarter-final second-leg matches scheduled for May 17 are subject to FIFA approval, given that football's world governing body has decreed that all international footballing activity must cease on 14 May 2006 in order to prepare for the FIFA World Cup™. This date will only be approved on the condition that national team players are not to be used.
Competition in South American will be temporarily brought to a halt during the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, which means that the semi-finals and Grand Final will take place once this summer's showpiece tournament has concluded.
A passionate history
The Copa Libertadores de América is much more than a mere football competition for South American football fans and players. The tournament, which began in 1960, evokes unrivalled passion with the giants of continental football battling it out and regional and historical rivalries being played out through the beautiful game. Even the most laid-back of fans cannot fail to get caught up in the whirlwind of excitement which sweeps through the continent and beyond, drawing in football lovers from across the globe.
The race to be crowned South America's top team is now officially underway, with the extra incentive of representing the continent at FIFA's World Club Championship and testing your mettle against the world's top sides. As of 11 December, the reigning Libertadores Champions Sao Paulo will be in Japan defending the honour of the world's most prolific producers of footballing talent. Whose turn will it be next year?
Draw for Copa Libertadores 2006
- Match A: Paraguay 3 vs. Peru 3.
- Match B: Colombia 3 vs. Uruguay 3.
- Match C: River Plate (Argentina) vs. Oriente Petrolero (Bolivia).
- Match D: Mexico 3 vs. Chile 3.
- Match E: Brazil 6 vs. Táchira (Venezuela).
- Match F: Brazil 5 vs. Ecuador 3.
As soon as the various national championships have drawn to a close, the definitive list of participants can be completed.