In case you hadn’t noticed (and if you’re in Britain you can almost certainly be forgiven this), the Copa America got under way in Venezuela last week. I’m not sure why the British press ignore this – after all, there’s precious little happening in the football universe at the moment, and the quality of football being played on the other side of this world is, of course, fantastic. Already, the pre-tournament favourites have been dumped on their backsides and they’ve had twenty-four goals in the first six matches. All of this compares pretty favourably with the last European Championships, I think we can agree.
You might think that this tournament has been little more than a platform for Brazil and Argentina to assert their authority over their smaller neighbours but, whilst Brazil have won three of the last four tournaments, the truth of the history of this competition is somewhat more complex than that. It is the oldest continental competition in the world, having started as long ago as 1916 and, in one of those little curiosities that world football throws up every now and again, neither Brazil or Argentina won the competition at all between 1959 and 1989. It went from being four yearly to biennial in 1987, and was expanded from ten nations to twelve in 1993, with the other two teams being invited elsewhere (Mexico get invited every time – the other invited nation usually comes from Central or North America, although, strangely, Japan were invited in 1999).
This year’s competition started under a shroud of a degree of controversy. Brazil’s star players, Ronaldinho and Kaka, complained of being “tired” (bless their little cotton socks), and the Brazilian coach Dunga (literal translation in Portuguese – “Dopey”, from “Snow White & The Seven Dwarves”) accepted this, though he managed a couple of barbed comments in their general direction. The Americans have also opted to take a weakened squad with them. Considering that they seemed to suffer at the World Cup last year from a lack of experience at playing against top quality opposition (their qualifying group is an infamously easy one, the their own confederation, CONCACAF, only really offers up Mexico as serious opposition), this choice appeared to be a strange one, though not as strange as the decision of CONCACAF to hold the Gold Cup just before the Copa America. The issue of countries resting their best players has been a problem for the Copa America for some time. The South Americans switched to a marathon, ten team, eighteen match single qualifying group for the World Cup in the 1990s, and this has had a serious affect on the credibility of CONMEBOL’s own tournament. This year, however, with the World Cup qualifiers about to start, the tournament is being viewed as an important opportunity to fine tune their squads ahead of an arduous campaign.
None of this is to say that there isn’t a plethora of quality in Venezuela at the moment. Argentina are at full strength, with Messi, Riquelme, Ayala and all the rest on display (how did they not win the World Cup last year?), Ecuador feature De La Cruz, Valencia and Mendez, and even Brazil have, obviously, a roster of reserve players that most nations would put straight into their first teams. The range of attacking players that most of the teams have has been emphasised by the quality of play and the number of goals in the first round of matches. There are three groups of four teams, with the three group winners and the best runners-up progressing to the semi-finals. They line up as follows – Group A: Uruguay, Peru, Venezuela & Bolivia. Group B: Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador & Chile. Group C: Paraguay, Argentina, USA & Columbia. Here’s a quick round-up of what has happened so far.
Group A: Venezuela vs Bolivia and Peru vs Uruguay – Venezuela is traditionally a baseball country, and their national team have been the traditional whipping boys of South American football for some time. However, they have improved of late, and kicked off with a 2-2 draw against the Bolivians – a result that should have been much better for them. They showed their lack of experience by taking the lead twice and throwing it away. In the second match, a match which looked on paper to be between two fairly evenly matched sides, Peru surprised Uruguay by beating them 3-0. Uruguay’s performance was surprisingly poor, whilst Peru played with sufficient passion to leave me thinking that they might just make it to the World Cup in 2010.
Group B: Brazil vs Mexico and Ecuador vs Chile – Tee hee. Not that they’ll care much, of course, but it was somewhat pleasing to see Brazil get undone by two goals in five first half minutes by Mexico, who held on for a 2-0 win and, in the process, given them an uphill battle to make the quarter-finals. It’s always pleasing to see the Nike Marketing Machine lose. Meanwhile, Ecuador and Chile played out an excellent match which finished in a 3-2 win for Chile. All to play for between the Chileans and the Mexicans for top place, then – Brazil have left themselves a mountain to climb just to make the best runners-up place.
Group C: Argentina vs USA and Paraguay vs Columbia – It seems like a pretty obvious thing to say, but Argentina have got to win this, haven’t they? They looked a bit ropey for the first twenty minutes or so against the USA’s third choice team, though, and fell behind to an Eddie Johnson penalty, before rallying to win 4-1. It’s a pity for the USA team – the game’s profile still needs to be raised at home, and a decent performance in a major, pan-continental tournament could had a very beneficial effect for them, but they were coming into the competition off the back of the Gold Cup and, with a weakened team, were always likely to struggle. With Argentina looking so powerful, the heat was on in the other match between Paraguay and Columbia. Columbia have been deteriorating for some time, but they capitulated spectacularly against Paraguay, for whom Roque Santa Cruz scored a hat-trick. Columbia missed a penalty early on, and were still in the game at half-time with Paraguay leading 1-0. However, Santa Cruz doubled their lead fifteen seconds into the second half, and it was downhill from there on for the Columbians.
So, at the moment, if I was guessing, I’d be looking at Peru, Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador to make the semi-finals, though there is still a long way to go in the group stages, the second round of which start later on today. We’ll have another look at what has been going on after the second round of group matches. If you want to see the goals, by the way, you should head over to 101 Great Goals – but you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?