Copa America 2021: Pitana’s Thigh

by | Jun 30, 2021

Group B (North Zone): Brazil: 10 points, +8 goal difference; Peru: 7, -2; Colombia: 4, -1; Ecuador: 3, -1; Venezuela Reserves 2, -4.

Association Football’s Law 9 , “The Ball In and Out of Play,” included a key change this year. The ball would be out “if it touches a match official, remains on the field of play and: a team starts a promising attack or the ball goes directly into the goal or the team in possession of the ball changes. In all these cases, play is restarted with a dropped ball.”

I had only ever seen this change interpreted as “if the ball hits the ref, it’s a drop ball.” Likewise Colombia’s players, judging by their reaction to falling most foul of it against (well…wouldn’t you know it?) Brazil.

The Selecao were already in the quarter-finals. But, after 77 minutes on Thursday, their seven-year unbeaten home record was threatened by a combination of Luis Diaz’s spectacular, sizzling bicycle-kick giving Colombia a 10th-minute lead and wonderfully disciplined defending of that lead. Then, tightly combed-over Argentine referee, Nestor Pitana, intervened. Twice.

A drilled Neymar pass towards the defender-heavy edge of the penalty box struck the, gulp, 2018 World Cup Final ref on his left thigh. Pitana instinctively shaped to blow his whistle and restart play “with a dropped ball.” But he dropped a bollock instead. His, admittedly impressive, close control had literally started “a promising attack,” as his ‘pass’ found Brazil’s Lucas Paqueta, who played the ball out to the left flank, where Renan Lodi crossed for substitute “Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino” to head home via Colombian keeper David Ospina’s non-stick gloves.

Pitana soon sought video assistance, while Colombian players went excusably nuts. The gods alone know what the refs were discussing (they weren’t speculating on how much the goal would be worth to those with financial interests in Brazil’s success…oh no). Because if such a scenario wasn’t already in a training video on EXACTLY when Law 9 applies, it should be now.

What seemed like some months after Pitana was struck, the goal was given. And although Colombia slowly regained their composure, and even vaguely threatened a delicious stoppage-time winner, it was inevitable that Brazil would win it themselves in the time added for the post-equaliser shemozzle. Nonetheless, it was an awful goal to concede at ANY time, let alone the 99th minute, Brazil captain Casemiro heading home Neymar’s corner in the six-yard box in the sort of space usually given to someone who has just farted…an appropriate soundtrack to Colombia’s defending.

Unsurprisingly, Colombia’s football federation, the FCF, wanted Pitana immediately suspended. They made an astonishing claim about the VAR telling Pitana that Neymar’s pass “was going to be received by a Colombian,” which was cause in itself to disallow the goal (“if…the team in possession of the ball changes” – above). And they cited the suspension of two of the Colombians officiating at a recent Uruguay/Paraguay World Cup qualifier. But South American confederation Conmebol said, out loud, that Pitana’s thigh “did not lead to a promising attack.” The fix, it seems, is in.

It could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that Brazil would have lost without Pitana’s bollock-drop. Until half-time, they responded laboriously to Diaz’s wonder-strike (which deserves far more than the footnote to this game it will now be). But after it, they played their most fluent football in this Copa to date. Neymar, again focusing on football over f**kwittery, struck the post on 66 minutes. And Colombia’s defending had to be consistently, considerably better than Everton and Spurs fans might think capable of a rearguard centred by Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez.

But we know that the whole scenario served only those unwilling to take chances on Brazil’s success in this ill-considered Copa.

Beneath the needlessly wind-assisted Brazilians, Group B was surprisingly tight, with qualification uncertain until the very late stages of the last group games, even if, ultimately, the result was as long-predicted.

Venezuela Reserves had become a “Venezuela XI” as their Covid absentees became available, if hardly match fit. But it was too late. Needing at least a draw with Peru on the last evening, they undid themselves with some atrocious defending, as two of their “zonal” defenders at an early second-half corners combined to send the ball into the path of an unmarked name, five yards from goal, with fatal consequences for their Copa involvement, which was a genuine shame.

They’d deserved their 2-2 draw with Ecuador in their previous game, two great goals matching Ecuador’s one-and-a-half scruffy ones. Ayrton Presciado put Ecuador ahead from close range after some six-yard box pinball on 39 minutes. On 51 minutes, Venezuela levelled when Edson Castillo began a neat passing move and ended it with a bullet header from six yards. On 71 minutes, Gonzalo Plata sped 80 yards downfield and, denied a wonder goal by keeper Wuliker Farinez, settled for a tap-in. But on 91 minutes (a rhythm method of sorts, there), Ronald Hernandez looped a header from Castillo’s high diagonal punt past stranded Ecuador keeper Pedro Ortiz.

This appeared to set-up a winner-takes-all Peru/Venezuela clash. But Peru made that match less decisive by beating Colombia, whose goalscoring gremlins continued. Mina DID show the composure sadly lacking in his forward colleagues (especially the execrable Miguel Borja) when chesting in Christian Cueva’s corner from close range on 64 minutes. But…well…wrong bloody net.

Peru led on 17 minutes, Sergio Pena calmly side-footing in after Yoshimar Yotun’s parabolic 25-yarder hit the post. Borja’s penalty (even he can score THEM sometimes) levelled matters on 53 minutes, after he was clattered by Peru keeper Pedro Gallese, who was only booked as Borja being clean through isn’t a currently a clear goalscoring opportunity. But after Mina ‘grabbed’ the winner, Colombia had a nervous wait, as Peru’s subsequent 2-2 draw with Ecuador meant that not every combination of final-day results kept them in the competition.

Apparently, last Wednesday’s internationals (UK Time) had to be entertaining 2-2 draws. So, Ecuador had to squander a two-goal lead. Renato Tapia slid Pervis Estupinan’s fine cross into his own net to give Ecuador a 23rd-minute lead, which they doubled in the third of two minutes’ stoppage-time when Damien Diaz’s softly-awarded free-kick was converted by Presciado. However, “Peruvian-Italian striker” Gianluca Lapadula took brief control, drilling home Cueva’s eye-of-a-needle 49th-minute pass and avoiding two sliding defenders to set up Andre Carillo’s neat 53rd-minute finish.

Fortunately for Ecuador, their final opponents were Brazil Reserves. As is now traditional for Brazil’s opponents, Ecuador went into the game Covid-hit when Diaz took ill. They were behind at half-time to Eder Militao’s fine header…and out of the Copa as the Venezuela XI were holding Peru 0-0. And Venezuela would have led that game (AND Colombia) but for Sergio Cordova looking like he deliberately missed from eight yards, bellyflopping at the wrong angle into a diving header.

Fortunately for Ecuador, part two, Brazil’s defence timeously dissolved like Venezuela’s shortly after half-time when Lodi went off injured. Angel Mena slammed home his side’s third good chance in about as many minutes. And Ecuador probably should have won, as Brazil’s second-string looked very second-string indeed. But Brazil kept their unbeaten Copa run intact, and Ecuador were quarter-final-bound. Handy, eh?

Group A (South Zone): Argentina: 10pts, +5 goal difference; Uruguay: 7, +2; Paraguay: 6, +2; Chile: 5, -1; Bolivia: 0, -8.

No huge last-day dramas in Group A, as Bolivia finishing bottom was never not the likeliest outcome. And was Argentina finishing top. Meanwhile, Uruguay won the mid-table mini-league, leaving Chile facing a quarter-final with Brazil.

Goalkeepers getting cramp is usually a source of amusement or disdain (I picture Ian Wright laughing and Roy Keane…not). But so convincing were a much-changed Argentina against a shot Bolivia that when Bolivian keeper Carlos Lampe briefly cramped up after one particularly contortion-heavy save, you understood why. Bolivia drew the second half. But it was more one-sided than the first half which Argentina won 3-0.

Argentina hadn’t been any great shakes previously in this Copa, whatever “great shakes” are. And their 1-0 win against Paraguay had very few shakes, great or otherwise. I knew the final score, and that the goal came after 10 minutes, before I saw the match, because the BBC plonked the result above its website coverage. And I feared, correctly, for the quality of the remaining 80 minutes.

Good goal, mind. Lionel Messi ran at the defence and found Angel de Maria, on his first Copa 2021 start, whose incisive through-ball found Papu Gomez. And he finished expertly before effectively retiring for the night. Yet Paraguay couldn’t shed their defensive outlook. Argentina over-relied on their “big three”; Messi, de Maria and a befuddled Sergio Aguero, whose hour before being subbed failed to unfuddle him (his 63 minutes against Bolivia had more success). Meanwhile, Paraguay over-relied on their big…one, Miguel Almiron. Indeed, for one annoying spell, the game was Messi running at, and losing possession, followed by Almiron repeating the “trick.”

I had the same fears when I saw how early Edison Cavani’s decisive penalty was for Uruguay against the Paraguayans. This was a better game, but mostly because of Uruguay, driven incessantly by NAME de la Cruz, even if his good work was systematically undone by his side’s profligacy in front of goal…again (see below). And now Paraguay are without Almiron, who collapsed in an injured heap, yards from the nearest player and left the pitch in tears. Peru, finalists in the last Copa in 2019, could be semi-finalists in this one, despite their World Cup qualifying group struggles.

Chile and Uruguay had also been a frustrating watch. Chile’s 26th-minute goal deserved a better game. “Blackburn Rovers’ Ben Brereton Diaz,” to use his full name, deftly sent Eduardo Vargas clear, and his thumping shot from a tight angle beat Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera for pace. Uruguay’s 66th-minute leveller initially looked like sharp Luis Suarez goal-poaching, volleying a flicked-on corner into the roof of the net. But Chile’s Arturo Vidal was left in an injured heap as Suarez had volleyed his leg, and soon limped off, to prove he’d been fouled.

If the game is remembered (unlikely), it will be for some late Suarez sh*thousery, as he twice delayed a goalkick by grappling with a recalcitrant left boot in front of Chile custodian Claudio Bravo. Bravo moved the ball along the six-yard line. But Suarez just followed him, doubtless to cries of “kick him up the arse, Bravo” at TV sets everywhere. With Uruguay needing the win, this time-wasting was, in and of itself, pointless…which is what separates the best sh*thousery from the rest.

Fortunes soon diverged for these two. Uruguay should have beaten Bolivia by multiples of their two-goal winning margin, while ‘Chile 0’ was about right as even cautious Paraguay breezed past them.

Suarez and Edison Cavani had about 21 chances for Uruguay and took…one, Cavani side-footing home sub Facundo Torres’ 79th-minute cross just as Bolivia were likely thinking “this lot aren’t scoring, let’s go for it” (Uruguay only led thanks to a Jair Quinteros/Lampe joint own goal on 40 minutes). Bolivia introduced talisman-ish striker Marcelo Martins, who’d had Covid and was also suspended for criticising Conme’s money-grabbing – commentator Adam Ellis determined (ordered?) not to mention the latter.

Unfortunately, Martins was time-zones off the pace. And Bolivia only avoided a thumping because subs Torres and Maxi Gomez took finishing lessons from Uruguay’s profligate veterans. Cavani did his irritating ‘bow-and-arrow’ celebration when he finally scored. I shudder to think where any real arrow might have landed.

Uruguay’s win confirmed Chile and Paraguay’s qualification, which they celebrated by body-swerving entertainment. Almiron effectively won the game, plonking a 33rd-minute corner on Braian Samudio’s head and dispatching a 58th-minute penalty, three minutes of VAR faffing around after Oscar Gonzalez was set upon by Chile’s Gary Medel as a long throw approached.

Thirteen minutes later, Chile were denied a penalty, three minutes of VAR faffing around after Gonzalez headed a clearance inches from his right arm. This incensed Vidal, who, according to world feed commentator Peter Coates, “swarmed around” the referee (which is some achievement, for one person). And the non-decision further assisted Chile’s gradual Copa decline.

The Stoke-born, Blackburn Rovers striker Ben Brereton Diaz, to use his full name, personified this and earning Coates’ withering dismissal as “the Englishman.” And if he maintains this decline in personal form, it may mean a return to being Ben Brereton and some stage during the quarter-final against Brazil into which Chile have declined. Because no-one will want to claim him.

Pitch-imperfect

“Not very helpful,” Messi said euphemistically. “I’m not going to call it horrible but it’s terrible,” Brazil boss Tite said semantically. “The quality is poor, the grass is higher, there are more holes,” a former World Cup final referee said, bluntly. Is this dirt pitch where Brazil will play next?, Neymar instagrammed, cheekily. And, on this Copa’s pitches being awful, Conme said…nothing, silently (they will, of course, suspend Neymar for his comments, as they did Bolivia’s Marcelo Marti…ha…no). Not the main reason why this Copa should not have been staged here, not now. But another one of many.

What next?

Brazil/Chile; Peru/Paraguay (Friday) Colombia/Uruguay; Ecuador/Argentina (Saturday). On current finishing form, Colombia/Uruguay could even be nil-nil on penalties. All quarter and semi-finals go to “kicks from the penalty mark” after 90 minutes, BTW, a decision probably welcomed by most, even after the thrilling extra-time periods at the Euros this week. And the Brazil/Argentina final for which this Copa has been fixed designed is still on.

So…all’s tickety-boo, then. Well…apart from…

Covid… covid… covid

Comne announced on Friday that 166 people “had been infected in connection with the tournament,” 0.7% of the 22,856 tests “taken with people related to the tournament.” Presumably the infected will have had multiple tests, so the precise percentage of cases among tested individuals is unclear.

Conme have spun the figures. Any organisation would in their position. However, they overly stressed that most of the positive test results came from unvaccinated “outsourced workers,” as if that was a good thing. And it was disingenuous to suggest that they had “no control over why these people didn’t get their shots” when they had full control over hiring companies employing unvaccinated staff.

The only headline-producing Covid regulation breach was what Chile’s football federation (FCC) called “the unauthorised entry of a hairdresser” into their bubble, which forced them to cancel last Saturday’s training session when Conme heard about it. Fortunately, it has been negative tests across Chile’s “delegation” (and for the hairdresser) ever since.

The FCC said “those involved” would be “financially sanctioned.” However, there’s been no sanction for the matching hair ‘styles’ of Neymar, Richarlison and Gabriel Barbosa, which all suggested that dandruff, rather than an “unauthorised hairdresser” had seized control of the process at an early stage.

Perhaps we should welcome the opportunity to joke (ish) about such matters. Only 17 Copa players have tested positive, and 15 are available for selection post-isolation. Yet unease over the tournament remains. The Brazilian Senate’s inquiry into president Jair Bolsonaro’s pandemic management has reportedly uncovered rife, wilful MISmanagement, with his offer to host the Copa being merely trademark disregard for Brazilian citizens’ well-being. No Covid deaths yet at the Copa. But no certainty that everything is being done to keep it that way.