Copa America 2021: First Round – Covid 1-0 Football

by | Jun 17, 2021

So it has begun. With, predictably, more Covid cases than shots on target. Mostly, though not exclusively, because of the insanity of staging an international football tournament in the hot-spot of a raging pandemic.

As if the very playing of Copa America 2021 wasn’t nuts enough, it’s format lends itself to a first fortnight of football meaninglessness. The format of more recent 24-team finals tournaments led to complaints about how long it took to eliminate eight of the two-dozen. This Copa America has 10 teams. And after two weeks and 32 games, this Copa America will have eight teams. Something that could have been achieved in two games and a day. But, you know…money.

No such problems eliminating players and staff. A whole team’s worth of players and more succumbed to Covid in the hours before a ball was kicked, including up to five Bolivians and, more eye-catchingly, eight Venezuelans. Fifteen Venezuelan league players were flown in to make up the numbers. Yet South American football’s governing body, Conmebol, never even suggested a postponement. So, it was almost fortunate that more Venezuelans didn’t miss their and the tournament opener, against hosts Brazil, or you might think that the whole situation REALLY stank.

The restarting of Denmark’s Euro 2020 match with Finland, after Danish player Christian Eriksen’s on-field heart attack, put Conme second in the weekend’s greed-induced callousness competition among continental football confederations (though, yes, the game could have been finished a day later, rather than before there was full certainty that Eriksen would live). But the forced fielding of a genuinely severely weakened Venezuela side gave their game as little competitive integrity as the restarted Copenhagen match. And that mattered way less to Uefa AND Conme.

In tournament football as in life, systems are designed to maximise profit for governing stakeholders (corporations or confederations). No slack is built into them to allow for things to go wrong. So, if they do go wrong, governed stakeholders (workers or players) are forced into sacrifice. This isn’t news. It is, nonetheless galling to see the size of the sacrifices expected of the governed. Would the Euros have continued had Eriksen died? Uefa and stand condemned by the fact that we don’t know.

Venezuela reserves were already ensconced in plucky territory when Marquinhos netted Neymar’s corner to give Brazil a 23rd-minute lead, forcing the ball home from six yards in a manner beyond the limits of conventional football lexicon. The BBC website went for “bundled.” But it was more elegant than that. While the press agencies’ “finished” wasn’t even an effort. My initial notes read “side-glided.” And the game was “finished” as a contest, whatever the PSG centre-back did. Largely finished as a spectacle, too, until Venezuela reserves inevitably tired and Neymar began to resemble the Neymar of old, rather than an old Neymar.

His ill-advised beard and occasionally visible portliness produced a cross between 1973 comeback-era George Best and 1971-in-Paris Jim Morrison. Which was how he played for a half and a half. And Richarlison undermined much of Brazil’s intermittent fluency with a Filipo Inzaghi-esque appreciation of the offside law (type “but” into a BBC Football website search engine and “Richarlison is caught offside” will likely follow). Tite’s immediate predecessor as Selecao boss was Dunga, a defensive midfielder as player and manager. But even he might have thought this Brazil display “a bit stodgy.”

The 64th-minute penalty which finally unblocked the stodge was as odd-looking as Marquinhos’s side-slide. Right-back Danilo pushed the ball one side of Venezuelan defender Yohan Cumana, ran round the other side and cut across him, inviting the tackle but without any obvious further interest in the ball. And Cumana dozily accepted the invitation, catching Danilo’s “back ankle,” in the words of BBC coverage commentator Sam Kelly.

Neymar very eventually dispatched the penalty, after the sort of stuttering, prance-up of an approach which annoys as much as his rolling-about-on-the-floor sh*thousery when he’s fouled or “fouled.” Little wonder he is so loved wherever he plays. He did well to set up substitute Gabriel Barbosa’s 89th-minute close-range chest-in. But its Neymar. So we’d say that the Venezuelan defence was knackered, even if it wasn’t almost audibly obvious that they were.

Three-nil was probably acceptable to both sides, then. That the game was played at all, less so.

If/when the “VAR for Dummies” DVD hits the streets, Colombia’s decisive lone strike against Ecuador will surely be used to encapsulate all that is good about offering on-field officials video assistance. Because it looked for all the world as if there were more offside Colombians in Brazil than Covid-stricken Venezuelans when Colombia chucked in a floater (technical term) towards the penalty spot. But the goal was somehow fashioned by the only three onside Colombians at the Copa at the time. Edwin Cardona squared a free-kick to Juan Cuadrado. His floater was headed down by Miguel Borja into the path of the now on-rushing Cardona, who netted but seemed to accept, as the flag went up, that someone was offside. “Almost textbook training ground stuff,” commentator Peter Coates suggested, little knowing how redundant “almost” would become.

The game was otherwise less fascinating than Argentine referee Nestor Pitana’s combover, which looked eye-wateringly tight enough to explain his more ‘unconventional’ decisions (Rodney Dangerfield as Argentine referee…one for the kidz there). But, at the end of the day, video assistance was the winner. And this match could remain in the memory for that alone.

Video refereeing assistance was a little less helpful in the nominal opening ‘quarter’ of Paraguay’s ultimately as-comfortable-as-expected win over Covid-depleted Bolivia, with eight of its minutes spent in thrall to the god of VAR.

Exactly five of these were spent deciding that Paraguay’s Santiago Arzamendia had blocked down Diego Bejarano’s goalbound volley with his arm in the penalty box. Erwin Saavedra gave Bolivia a shock lead from the spot, which they maintained despite Paraguay getting a 19th-minute penalty, after Bolivian keeper Ruben Cordano was harshly adjudged to have upended Gabriel Avalos as they chased a loose ball. This, in turn, was after Bejarano appeared to handle Miguel Almiron’s shot. But none of it mattered, as Angel Romero was millimetres offside some months earlier in a passage of play which may also make…could be the rest of…’VAR for Dummies.’

Bolivia rode a Grand National field full of first-half luck until 17 seconds from the end of eight minutes first-half stoppage-time (see above), when Juame Cuellar saw red for his second tame bookable offence; a clash of knees as he withdrew from a possibly bookable tackle on Robert Piris da Motta and a decision to have ex-players bemoaning a “gone” game. And against ten knackered Bolivians, Paraguay won the second half with the three unanswered goals by which they should have won the first half.

It was deja-vu all over again for Argentina and Chile, who drew 1-1 in a World Cup qualifier in Argentina on the 4th June and again on Monday night in Rio. The qualifier was Argentina’s first match since Diego Maradona’s passing last November. And in Rio, Conme put on a genuinely brilliant Maradona tribute. It felt very incongruous in a fan-less stadium. But it is very well worth seeking out.

Lionel Messi’s 25-yard free-kick gave Argentina a then-deserved 33rd-minute lead (“Messi territory” could as easily be “top corner of the net” as “20-30 yards from goal”). But one of my twitter followers suggested, correctly, that Argentina were “a bit Spurs-y,” a nod to letting that lead slip rather than the surprisingly positive influence of Spurs’ midfielder Giovani Lo Celso.

Chile’s goal was as comically messy as Messi’s was quality; it felt unfair that each team received one goal for their efforts. Messi’s 25-yard free-kick was a ping of beauty (sorry). It swung later and further than a Jimmy Anderson special, tantalisingly out of Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo’s reach until just too late. Chile levelled on 57 minutes when Eduardo Vargas beat Arturo Vidal to the rebound after Vidal’s penalty was pushed onto the bar by Argentine keeper Emiliano Martinez.

This was five minutes after the actual penalty incident, Martinez saved a Vargas shot and Nicolas Tagliafico’s lunge for the loose ball caught Vidal. The issue wasn’t whether he got the ball but whether he got Vidal’s left or right one. “Vidal gets all of the ball and Tagliafico gets none of it…well, not of the football, anyway,” said Kelly, wonderfully. And this tackle-on-tackle crime looked more painful with each replay over-extensively viewed by ref Wilmar Roldan on the pitchside monitor, as recommended by an inexplicably indecisive Video Assistant.

Argentina also complained that a Chilean hand intervened after ball hit the bar. But, by now, most people had moved on (probably had time to move house). And Argentina’s main complaint should be at themselves for not winning a match they so controlled.

The key stat from the first round of games, though, was 52 Covid cases. Thirty-three players and ‘backroom staff,’ from the above-mentioned countries plus Peru (Brazil’s next opponents…co-incidentally) and Colombia (Brazil’s next-but-one opponents…co-incidentally). And nineteen competition workers (stadium staff and others). All testaments to the needlessness of the tournament, beyond money-making and ego-massaging.

We must hope that these cases are pre-tournament contagions and haven’t spread the virus…horrible hopes to have, four games into a four-week tournament. But the Copa version of my question about the Euros continuing if Eriksen died was asked of Conme by Covid-case Bolivian striker Marcelo Martins. “What matters to you is money. Players’ lives are not worth anything,” he instagrammed. “If someone dies, what will you do?” Conme stand condemned by the fact that we don’t know.