Palmeiras wins Copa Libertadores, far from his fans

SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Hundreds of Palmeiras fans huddled in the narrow streets around Allianz Parque and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the television screen they could find. The pandemic meant they couldn’t get to the finals in Rio de Janeiro. But it also meant they couldn’t even go to the bars and restaurants that are only available for takeout on weekends.

Instead, the fans improvised. A handful of them, residents of the apartment buildings and houses around the stadium that housed their beloved Palmeiras soccer team, tilted their screens so they could be seen on the streets outside. Other fans huddled in front of the bars and cafes, cheek to cheek, flags over their shoulders.

Her mind was 300 miles away, in the scorching heat of Rio, in the famous Maracanã, where her team faced rival Santos in the Copa Libertadores final and competed for the biggest prize in South American club football.

In a normal world, of course, many of them would have been there instead and flooded by the tens of thousands, by plane, car, and street, just to be there and adorn the spiritual home of Brazilian football in green and white. It was a historic moment, after all: the first time since 2006 that the Libertadores Final had been played by two Brazilian teams, and the first time that it was played by two teams from the state of São Paulo.

The vast majority of them, of course, couldn’t be there because this is not a normal world. Only 5,000 fans were allowed to personally take part in the final – all of them were specially selected by the respective clubs and not through the sale of tickets, and all were rather intuitively packed into the few open areas of the Maracanã with 78,000 seats than over its huge, mostly empty bowl spread out.

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But even if circumstances had changed, the old instincts hadn’t. The past 10 months have shown that regardless of risk or limitation, when playing football for the moments that matter most, fans feel the urge to be together.

And so the Palmeiras fans came to Allianz Parque on Saturday, the place where they feel at home hours before the start of the game to drink, sing and wave their flags. They had waited a long time for this – their team had not been crowned South American champions since 1999 – and had to wait 90 minutes longer for a game that was characterized more by its caution than its quality and played by more conscious teams by the, what could be lost as what could be gained.

Then it happened in a hurry. A hand-to-hand fight on the sidelines and Santos’ veteran coach Cuca were sent off. The 90 minutes had expired and the clock was ticking deeper and deeper into the injury time. After eight minutes, Rony, Palmeiras’ striker, conjured up a deep, searching cross. Breno Lopes, timing his jump, deflected his header over the Santos goalkeeper.

He ran towards the fans and they poured over the seats to get to him and his teammates. Palmeiras had his victory. And in the narrow streets around Allianz Parque, those who couldn’t be there finally felt like they were.

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