Copa America 2021: Neymar’s Long Wait Goes On
There were 130 seconds of normal time left in Sunday’s Copa America final. Argentina’s unlikely but logically undeniable man-of-the-match, Rodrigo De Paul, played a Messi-esque defence-splitting pass to…Lionel Messi, who was six yards from goal, with only Brazilian keeper Ederson to beat. The answer to match commentator Mark Scott’s question “is this his moment?” was, for all the world, “yes.” So Messi, on the cusp of his first-ever international title and about to captain Argentina to their first Copa since 1993…stood on the ball and fell over.
So, Scott’s answer to his own question was “oh no it’s not,” the BBC regular narrowly missing out on a suitably pantomimic description of events. But eight minutes later, it was Messi’s and Argentina’s moment. Indeed, De Paul could have had “his” moment in the 93rd minute, pouncing on an Emerson mistake and bringing a brave block from Ederson. Neither miss mattered, though. And, not for the last time on Sunday, a continental international tournament final ended in defeat for the hosts. However, with all due respect to England (i.e. plenty), Brazil’s loss was far the bigger surprise.,
Messi and Neymar were named joint best players of the tournament BEFORE the final, a premature call given that both were in the final. South American confederation, Conmebol (Conme) said it wasn’t “possible to choose only one player, because this competition has had two best players.” But it was demonstrably too early to tell. Neymar was fancied to lead Brazil to victory, thereby surely making Messi’s award as hollow and arguably unmerited as his winning of the 2014 World Cup’s “Golden Ball.” Messi could have shot the lights out in pursuit of his ‘Copa dream,’ or some such. And the joint-award smacked of football politics, or the result of “a word from our sponsors.”
As it transpired, neither player shone in a high-tempo, high-tempered tackle-fest (first booking, third minute, Fred). But Albiceleste boss Lionel Scaloni’s decision to name knock-out stage super-sub Angel Di Maria in the starting line-up paid off in pesos on 22 minutes. De Paul played a ‘big diagonal’ which full-back Renan Lodi semi-comically failed to cut out and the Paris Saint-Germain wideman produced by an innings the most finesse in the match to that point to delicately lob the perhaps un-necessarily on-rushing Ederson into the net.
Argentina therefore led 1-0 at half-time for the fourth time in their six-match run to the final. And Brazil never seriously threatened to foil a fifth. However, they couldn’t but up the ante after the break, especially as Argentina had failed to hold on to those leads against Chile in their first match and Colombia in their semi-final.
Neymar flew past a couple of tackles in an early second half run, only to be sent flying above the centre-circle by Giovani Lo Celso’s mercifully studs-down sliding tackle. And it took the Selecao seven second-half minutes to find the net. Richarlison played an inadvertent one-two with defender Christian Romero and toe-poked home, but was offside as he ran onto Lucas Paqueta’s pass at the start of the build-up, some months earlier.
Three minutes later, an onside Richarlison, who largely eschewed diving in this match, drilled a similar shot from a similar position at Argentine keeper Emiliano Martinez. And Brazil were on top for the first time, forcing Scaloni into a defensive substitution mindset while Brazilian supremo (last time I checked) Tite took the opposite route, perhaps wishing more than ever that striker Gabriel Jesus hadn’t kung-fu kicked his way into Copa 2021 oblivion in the quarter-final.
Messi could have set up Lautaro Martinez on 64 minutes but inadvisedly went for glory, perhaps betraying his desperation to end his and Argentina’s title drought. And the booking rather than the goalscoring chances count rose as the Albiceleste switched to sh*thousery with 20 minutes left and Brazil’s own desperations grew.
Neymar was propelled into low orbit again, on 81 minutes, by Nicolas Otamendi. Genuinely, too. No throwing himself to the ground and rolling around in feigned agony. He wasn’t really hurt, of course. But it was briefly possible to contemplate that he might have been. Handbags ensued when Otamendi was barged from behind by revenge-seeking Brazil centre-back Marquinhos and hit the deck to cries of “timber” globally. “I’m not sure why it made his legs stop working,” noted co-commentator Leon Osman, dipping his toe into sarky seas. “Well done, Marquinhos,” said everyone else.
Selecao sub Gabriel Barbosa’s shot was deflected into the side-netting a minute later, after he found some rare penalty-box space. And on 87 minutes, he nearly made his ‘Gabigol’ sobriquet seem a bit less of a p*sstake with a left-foot volley through a crowded house of a penalty box which Martinez E parried over. It didn’t feel like it at the time. But it was the last goal threat at that end, as this was where we came in, above.
Confusingly, Messi received the player of the tournament trophy alone in the post-match awards ceremony. And Copaamerica.com (“Rocking the continent”) said “there really could be no other” best player. But Di Maria was the final’s formal man-of-the-match. So confusion was excusable. Osman claimed that “no-one would argue with it,” before, erm, arguing with it: “Certainly thought Otamendi and De Paul were equally as good.” Mind you, it was gone 3am in the UK by then. So, we’ll let him off.
And no-one could faithfully argue with Argentina’s final triumph, perhaps most of all because it helped to shove populist prick Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s oafish, if only semi-serious, prediction that “Brazil will win five-nil” RIGHT up his arse (and I say that with all due respect, i.e. none). The Albiceleste and the Selecao were head, shoulders and more above the rest of the Copa cast. The football overall was mediocre. They weren’t.
Third place play-off: Colombia 3 Peru 2
A classic, eventually, with Colombia in their blue “change” kit, for no obvious reason (unless all their yellow kits needed Argentine blood washed out of them after the semi-final). This made it a clash of the Copa’s two best shirts. And after a terrific-looking first half, a truly terrific second half was climaxed by a photogenically-perfect winning goal, Luis Diaz’s 25-yarder beating a full stretch Peruvian keeper Pedro Gallese “all ends up,” as ‘they’ don’t say nearly enough anymore. There were bronze medals for winning too. So, while Colombia tweaked their line-up (while still not giving Alfredo Morelos a start), it was genuinely competitive, if lacking the final’s exorbitant tackle count.
Colombia dominated first-half possession. But Peru had the best two chances before taking the lead on the stroke of half-time with about the best team goal of the Copa. Yoshimar Yotun converting Christian Cueva’s pass with a neat, dinked finish after a pitch-length move also involving Sergio Pena. It was Yotun’s fifth goal in 105 Peru games, but his second in the last three, after his deflected 20-yarder against Paraguay in the quarter-finals.
But it was good work wasted, four minutes after half-time. Juan Cuadrado’s indifferently-struck free-kick went straight through Peru’s defensive wall past a surprised Gallese, after Italo-Peruvian striker Gianluca Lapadula turned sideways to let the ball pass. And Colombia led on 66 minutes, when tournament debut keeper Camilo Vargas perfectly-arrowed a clearance out of his hands straight to Diaz, who controlled the bouncing ball delightfully on his shoulder and side-footed his third goal of this Copa into the corner of the net past the advancing Gallese. Route One. But with panache.
Eight minutes remained when Lapadula also grabbed his third 2021 Copa goal, atoning for his defensive wall cowardice by outmuscling his marker…team-mate Andre Carrillo and heading home Raziel Garcia’s outswinging corner. But Diaz had the final say, after being set up by sub Luis Muriel, who was correctly identified by commentator Sam Kelly as “more of a penalty (shoot-out) change than a tactical change” when he came on, 28 seconds before the end of stoppage-time.
“So he’s going to have a touch before he takes a kick in the shoot-out,” an unsuspecting Kelly observed of Muriel, as Diaz played a one-two with the new arrival on the corner of the penalty area. One 25-yard rasper later, and all Kelly could say, along with the rest of us, was “Ohhhhhhh!” as Diaz joined Messi at the top of the Copa scoring charts and proverbially broke Peruvian hearts.
Brazil’s health ministry announced on Monday that there had been 179 “known Covid cases related to the Copa America,” a rise of 13 cases over the final round of group games and the entirety of the knock-out stages. This was, they said, “a very low contagion” which “certifies that Copa America took place in Brazil with safety and didn’t cause an increase in Covid-19 numbers.” Although they would, wouldn’t they?
As I type, there were no figures available for potential “contagion” among the 7,000 crowd at the final. Although as these people were classified as “guests” rather than “fans,” you can surmise that no expense was spared in ensuring these very important peoples’ safety. The Associated Press Agency also reported that “the ministry did not say how seriously the disease evolved in any of the infected.”
One would hope, though not with full confidence, that the ministry would not cover up any Covid deaths at the Copa. In which case, these figures are a massive relief to those (of us) who feared the health and well-being worst. But the fact remains that despite the huge and undoubtedly costly precautions taken, the best part of 200 people were made ill by the staging of an international football tournament. And that should never be.
With all the talk of Messi’s/Argentina’s “years of hurt,” Neymar’s lack of a Copa title flew under the radar. Injured in 2019, beaten here, his Copa time will surely come, possibly in the next Copa, currently set for Ecuador in 2024. Few other players shone. Luis Diaz turned his tournament around impressively after his stoppage-time dismissal against Venezuela Reserves. Emiliano Martinez trash-talked his way into Copa folklore in the semi-final shoot-out. And a trio of other keepers impressed; Peru’s Pedro Gallese, Venezuela Reserves’ Wullker Farinez and, for his cramp-earning display against Argentina, Bolivia’s Carlos Lampe.
Venezuela Reserves battled valiantly to overcome their Covid outbreak. And kudos to Bolivian Covid victim Marcelo Martins for speaking out about Conmebol’s disdain for anything which harmed their bottom line. However, a crowd-less tournament on poor pitches (including the supposedly newly-laid surface for the final at Rio’s iconic Maracana Stadium) was always going to suffer in comparison to the simultaneously-staged and outstanding Euros.
Lots of players disappointed. Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez had enough chances to win the Copa on their own, and butchered all but three of them. Chile were collectively honking but Arturo Vidal stood out as particularly unhelpful, restricting his contributions to arguing with referees and allowing the unauthorised entry of a hairdresser (not a euphemism, google it).
The biggest reputational comeback was probably final referee Esteban Ostojich. Rightly pilloried after an ‘involving’ display in the Peru/Paraguay quarter-final, the Uruguayan had a better final than Messi and Neymar combined, controlling a match that would have descended into chaos under worse whistlers. And, speaking of Nestor Pitana… The Argentinian wasn’t appointed for the Copa’s business end because of Argentina’s involvement. But he wasn’t appointed after his glaring error in allowing himself a pre-pre-assist to Brazil’s equaliser against Colombia. Which was about right.
The telly was good, even if world feed commentators Sam Kelly and Peter Coates occasionally betrayed their inexperience; you can’t mask everything with dialectically pinpoint pronunciations of Lopessssss and Carrrrrrrrillllyo. And it was a shame that the BBC only deemed three of the Copa’s 28 games worthy of a commentary duo, the necessity of which was highlighted by Leon Osman and Stephen Warnock’s support of regular BBC commentator Mark Scott.
Sadly, it was also impossible to mask the hypocrisy of Conmebol’s pre-match ritual minutes’ silences to “thank the great heroes who are fighting against Covid-19 on all fronts,” while staging a tournament which made that fight, against a pandemic raging far harder than in Europe, un-neccesarily harder. Wealth before health, on a continental football scale.