Fortaleza chase first-ever cup title, but fans face struggles

When West Ham United won their continental title last year, one of the big talking points was the size of the stadium. With a capacity of just over 20 000, the Sinobo ground in Prague was nowhere near big enough to accommodate all the fans from London and Fiorentina who wanted to attend the event. A stadium two or even three times bigger would have been a wiser choice -- and this was the Europa Conference League, the continent's third string club competition.

Europe is probably unique in this respect. The countries are close together, especially in the western part, where football is strongest, and natural ease of travel is boosted by extensive infrastructure. Asia, however, plays its AFC Champions League final on a two-legged, home and away basis, as do Africa and Concacaf.

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There are certainly advantages to the idea of a one-off final on a neutral ground. It is easier to sell the event around the world -- people in other continents do not have to make the investment of following two games. It might also be the case that a one-off, neutral ground final makes for a better spectacle, without the festival of time wasting that the away side may be tempted to produce in the two-legged tie.

But football is nothing without the fans. And if it is not possible for enough of them to make the journey to a neutral ground -- either because they can't afford it or because the structure is simply not in place -- then the two-legged decider is probably the wiser move. Asia, Africa and Concacaf seem to think so.

But not South America. Since 2019, the continent's footballing authorities have embarked on a new project. Traditionally, vast distances, economic disparities and inadequate travel links made it all but inevitable that the two competitions, the Libertadores and the Sudamericana, would end with a two-legged, home and away final. But for five seasons now they have gone for the one-off decider on a neutral ground.

In the case of the Copa Libertadores, the Champions League equivalent, this has worked relatively well, although many continue to be against the idea on the grounds that poorer fans are being excluded from the main event. The problems have been more apparent in the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League. The competition has nothing like the tradition and prestige of the Libertadores, sometimes the clubs are smaller and the risk exists of a showpiece occasion going ahead in front of a half empty stadium.

That happened two years ago when two teams from Brazil fought out the final in Uruguay's Centenario stadium. Winners Athletico Paranaense from the South of Brazil are relatively close to Uruguay. Opponents Red Bull Bragantino are from the south east, which, again, is hardly an epic trek. But the old stadium, built for the 1930 World Cup, only contained a crowd of some 20,000 for the big day.

This year's final between Quito and Fortaleza takes place on Saturday. It was also scheduled for the Centenario in Uruguay. But a few weeks ago there was a change. The game was moved from Montevideo to Maldonado, a couple of hours down the coast, to a ground with a capacity of little more than 20,000. This is practically an admission that, at least for this year in this competition, the neutral ground final is problematic.

Both teams are coming from the other end of the continent. LDU, or Liga of Quito, make their way down from the capital of Ecuador, while Fortaleza have the long journey from Brazil's north east. The game is particularly important for the latter. LDU have already won this title. For Fortaleza, this is by some distance the biggest day in their history. They are a rising force from one of Brazil's poorer regions. The country's traditional giants are clustered in the south east and the south.

But Fortaleza, whose biggest triumph so far is a second division title, are now making everyone sit up and take notice. They are well-run off the field and wonderfully coached on it by the Argentine Juan Pablo Vojvoda. Fortaleza are consolidating themselves as a first division force, boldly doing battle with bigger teams.

This year's Sudamericana always looked like an opportunity for them to take a step further and compete for a major title, and the club have leapt at the chance. They have played 12 games in the campaign, winning nine and losing only one, racking up 27 goals in the process. Fortaleza are a club on an epic journey of their own. It is a shame, then, that so many of their fans will not be able to come along for the ride down to Uruguay.