Big players on a big hunt

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Uruguay and Paraguay will contest the final of the Copa America this evening in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. But, while the showpiece will be played out between two of South America’s big players, the tournament as a whole was one for a tearing up the betting slips as the traditional super-powers of the game failed to ignite and one giant was felled after another.
A semi-final line-up of Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and Paraguay was not exactly what pundits and fans would have expected before the competition began. The plights of Brazil and Argentina were unsurprisingly the ones that created the most headlines. Both teams went into the tournament off the back of poor World Cup campaigns and with new managers at the helm. Both were favorites and anything short of overall victory would be a disaster.
Disaster it was. The greater burden was on the hosts, Argentina, and one man in particular, Lionel Messi. For all his talent the Barcelona forward has yet to produce his club form on the international stage and was once again found wanting, although this was not entirely his own fault. In the lead up to the tournament the question on everyone’s lips was whether new coach Sergio Batista could resolve the Messi conundrum and effectively utilize him alongside the attacking riches of Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero, Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi.
The answer was that he couldn’t – the decision to try and play like Barcelona backfired spectacularly and the players around Messi were static and cumbersome rather than fluid – and the hosts barely went out with a whimper losing to finalists Uruguay in the quarter finals. Brazil’s exit was a slightly different affair. The two-time defending champions entered the tournament on a general wave of optimism. Friendly results had been good, a new generation of young stars like Neymar and Ganso were expected to show their brilliance on the international stage, and surprisingly for a Brazilian team they arguably boasted the best defensive line-up in the world.
The optimism was misplaced. Yes the Selecao battered the Paraguayans in the quarter-finals and if it weren’t for the heroics of goalkeeper Justo Villar, they would surely have won, but not to score a single goal in the penalty shoot-out hints that something is just not right with the mental state of the players. Also to record only one win from four in a major championship is not exactly the Brazilian way. The story of the Copa is part of a greater re-alignment of world football since the onset of the Champions League.
European club football and in particular the elite teams have become the true reference point of the standard of the game. This has had two major consequences. Firstly, in their thirst for the success, European clubs now deploy scouting networks all over the world in search of the next Lionel Messi. Players from lesser know football nations now regularly ply their trade in Europe’s big leagues exposing them to far higher standard of professionalism. Chile’s Alexi Sanchez and Ecuador’s Antonio Valencia are notable examples of this trend.
Secondly, the number of games the very best players play for the clubs often mean that by the time international tournaments roll around, they are too tired or injured to give their all for the sake of their country. The first signs that the tectonic plates of world football had firmly shifted was the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Heavy-weights Argentina, France and Portugal all exited in the group stages and Italy and England were dispatched in the second-round and quarter-finals respectively.
South Korea became the first Asian team to ever reach the semi-finals of a world-cup while once European whipping boys Turkey were unlucky to be edged out at the same stage of the tournament. In the following European Championships minnows Greece managed to shock the world by winning the entire tournament. Even last year’s World Cup provided a sign that things were changing. Spain and Holland contested the first final between two teams who had never won the trophy for the first time since 1978.
It was also the first time since before the Second World War that two consecutive World Cup finals had been played without the participation of either Brazil or Germany. The Copa has not been entirely immune from this trend. In 2001, neither of Brazil or Argentina reached the semi-finals of the tournament with the Columbians collecting their first and only tournament victory. However, those were the years when the tournament was played every two years and a lot of times the big teams would send out experimental squads because of fixture congestion, preferring instead to concentrate of the mammoth round of World Cup qualifiers.
With the Copa having now found its rightful place in the international calendar this time the shocks were real and meaningful. What of tonight’s match itself? To suggest that both finalists have been steady and solid rather than spectacular would be an under-statement of epic proportions. World Cup semi-finalists Uruguay haven’t exactly reproduced the sparkling form of last year. Charruas finished second in their group after a narrow 1-0 victory over what was essentially a Mexican youth side, and defended their way to a penalty shoot-out with Argentina in the quarters, which they won 5-4.
The 2-0 victory over Peru in the semi-finals was Uruguay’s first resounding display at the finals. Liverpool’s Luis Suarez scored two goals as strike partner Diego Forlan provided the spark and industry. For all their hard work Peru never really threatened La Celeste, but to be have reached the semifinal stage of the Copa is wonderful feat for a team that finished bottom in the last edition of South American World Cup Qualifiers. Paraguay threaten to become the first team ever to claim the trophy without winning a single match in normal time.
They drew all three of their group games and both their quarter-final match and semi ended 0-0. Not exactly the stuff of Champions. But Paraguay’s presence in the final should not be seen as too much of a surprise. They are a strong outfit, with a brilliantly resilient defense and lest anyone forget with four consecutive World Cup qualifications under their belt, they are definitely one of the continent’s big boys. Predictions? Well, I had foreseen an Argentina-Columbia final so what do I know.
Uruguay would be most people’s favorites to win a record 15th Copa crown – but as this tournament has taught us so far we should expect the unexpected. It may well be the Paraguayans who are dancing in the streets
of Buenos Aires this evening.