Copa America 2021: The Second Round
Copa America 2021 is taking shape on the pitch…as slightly out-of-shape as Neymar. Covid has impacted exactly as expected off the pitch. And tournament organisers have reacted…exactly as expected.
Group B: Colombia 0 Venezuela Reserves 0; Brazil 4 Peru 0
However fascinatingly bad the game was from which they took it, Venezuela Reserves’ first point was joyous to behold.
Commentator Sam Kelly revealed that his attention hadn’t been over-grabbed by the first 88 minutes in Goiania, when he suggested that Mateus Uribe’s 89th-minute header “might be” Colombia’s “first attempt on-target.” This was harsh on Venezuela keeper Wuilker Farinez, whose save from Uribe was his sixth good one in a match of which he was the only candidate to be “man.”
Nonetheless, Colombia should have scored somewhere, somehow. Easily their best effort was right-back Daniel Munoz’s wonderful bicycle-kick from near the edge of the box on 53 minutes, which was equally photogenically tipped over the bar by Farinez. And most of the entertainment to be had was from their strikers’ seeming efforts to MISS. “We must improve our finishing,” Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda spotted. That’s why coaches are paid the big bucks.
Referee Eber Aquino looked, and reffed, like Pep Guardiola. But he was right to dismiss Colombia’s Luis Diaz in the 94th minute. Diaz appeared to win the ball off Venezuela’s Francisco La Mantia and clearly expected a free-kick as he fell backwards after La Mantia slide-tackled him. “Well, he got the ball,” Kelly noted, over initial replays which strongly suggested just that. But further replays showed that Diaz over-balanced as his studs rested on the prone Venezuelan’s leg. Well done, Pep.
Brazil’s opposition looks as if it can only get tougher from here. Peru did not have Venezuela’s excuses for being a distant second to Brazil, although they had at least one Covid case among their staff. And for much of their tournament opener, you could see why they currently prop up South America’s World Cup qualifying group, below Venezuela on goal difference. Yet they occasionally spluttered into the life they showed in their 2-1 qualifier win away to third-placed Ecuador on 8th June. And had Alex Valera taken an on-a-plate 79th-minute chance to reduce first-gear Brazil’s lead to 2-1, the closing stages of an ultimately comfortable Selecao win might have been intensely different.
Brazil’s emphatic win came from two very late goals, from subs Everton Ribeiro and Everton’s Richarlison, both involving Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino. And it only became comfortable when the decision to overturn a 59th-minute penalty award inspired the too-easily-overbalancing Neymar to play as wonderfully as he can. His 68th-minute goal, his 68th in internationals, put him second in Brazil’s all-time goalscorers list, nine behind Pele. And at 29, he’s plenty young enough to top that list. Which is marvellous, isn’t it? (No).
The tournament format gives every team a shot at a quarter-final. And Venezuela Reserves and Peru meeting in Brasilia next Sunday is effectively a last-16 tie. By then, Venezuela Reserves will hopefully have sufficient Covid-returnees (and no new cases) to have mutated into a Venezuela XI at least. And unless Peru can disprove that their win in Quito was a blip, a Venezuela of sorts will likely be in the last eight, which would be a justice of sorts, after the week they’ve had.
Group A: Chile 1 Bolivia 0; Argentina 1 Uruguay 0
There were plenty of unhappy campers after Chile’s unexpectedly narrow win over Group A’s likely last-placers Bolivia. Chile’s Arturo Vidal fumed at being subbed on 68 minutes and sat in various sulks along various parts of the touchline until far beyond the final whistle. Few of his unsubbed team-mates looked remotely happy that Chile had almost confirmed a quarter-final spot. And Bolivian boss Cesar Farias marched onto the pitch with ferocity in his eyes, for reasons which the “world feed” coverage’s abrupt end kept from us.
Ten minutes in, Chile looked set for a goal difference-boosting win. Andrea Pirlo hair-alike “Blackburn’s Ben Brereton” (apparently his full name) briefly dominated the internet after scoring. The Stoke-born Brereton has a Chilean mother and was making his first start for Chile, having debuted as a sub against Argentina last Monday. And, coming only minutes after England’s goalless, charmless Euros draw with Scotland, his goal covered social media in “Englishman scores at last!” comments and memes.
The ex-England under-19 team-mate of current England seniors Mason Mount, Reece James and Aaron Ramsdale, could have scored three, which would have filed Bolivia in the great-kit-sh*te-team column alongside Peru. But, as the game progressed, so did Bolivia’s attacking intent. Sadly, with their five Covid absentees including top scorer Marcelo Martins, they lacked penetration, probably missing Martins more than Chile missed the injured Alexis Sanchez.
Argentina edged Uruguay in a “Clasico del Rio de la Plata” which was no classic. They have made a recent habit of sitting back on, then squandering, leads. But Uruguay weren’t quite good enough to maintain that habit, even with Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez up front. Their best chance came from a 69th-minute Matias Vina cross, which was inches in front of Cavani and inches behind Suarez. Cavani’s other ‘contribution’ was an embarrassing first-half penalty-box dive. And Argentina looked likely winners from the moment Guido Rodriguez headed home Lionel Messi’s pinpoint cross on 13 minutes.
Messi hardly “put up” the “magic show” suggested by one media headline. But with big names such as Angel de Maria merely an impact sub and Sergio Aguero getting as little a look-in as he did at Manchester City last season, Messi is carrying this team, much as he did in the 2018 World Cup. And, bar Aston Villa keeper Emiliano Martinez and the talented imposter wearing Giovani Lo Celso’s shirt, they are bang average. It’s a bang average Copa, though. So if Messi REALLY “puts up a magic show” at any stage, it could conjure up his first Copa triumph, Argentina’s first, surprisingly, since 1993 and their second, even more surprisingly, since 1959.
The BBC has boasted for some weeks that they are showing all 28 Copa games live on red buttons, iPlayers and other media concepts beyond the ken of most over-55s (e.g. me since February). And, mercifully for those of us requiring 21 hours’ beauty sleep-per-day, the games remain available at any time of any day on the website until the tournament’s currently scheduled end.
The coverage isn’t the BBC’s, other than being exclusive to them in the UK. The words and music are from the “world feed,” which is available to any broadcaster who can’t use their own people because, for instance, they’re all covering the Euros. The Copa’s world feed commentators are Sam Kelly and Peter Coates, both working without an expert co-commentator…or Robbie Savage. And the commentaries have often been better than the games.
Kelly and Coates seem depressingly young to my ears. Both sound (over?) keen to get the players’ names enunciated in local accents. And Spanish/Portuguese sounds distractingly odd from such well-educated-sounding Queen’s English speakers. It also makes certain players sound classier than they are, as Spurs fans will surely testify about Colombia’s Davidson Sanchez.
This is Argentine football podcaster Kelly’s first big commentary gig, which has occasionally showed. He has divided social media opinion, with his dry, laid-back style too dry and laid-back for many. The antithesis of Capital Gold-era Jonathan Pearce, who was loud enough to shatter glass but too high-pitched for anyone but dogs to hear him do it. But I’m in the dry, laid-back camp. I prefer Kelly’s honesty (“Cleared by Martinez…I think”) to old schoolers who try to feign knowledge to cover their research deficiencies.
And he got things delightfully muddled when suggesting that Colombia’s Yerry Mina was too short to net a low cross against Venezuela Reserves. Realising mid-commentary that his theory would make Mina 6ft 11, he ended up saying: “if his legs were six inches longer…well, he’d be a very tall man indeed.” That this made me grin, where Robbie Savage et al would make me grimace, might be indicative of my prejudices. However, unlike the old schoolers, Kelly and Coates are clearly knowledgeable and well-researched. Far from perfect. But they’ll do for me.
Old school Video “Assistance”
The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system at the Euros have been getting good reviews (“not so much drama, is there?” asked BBC commentator Robyn Cowen, approvingly, during Sweden/Slovakia). So the Copa system has been something of a throwback, with the video assistants averaging about four minutes per contentious decision and generally reluctant to out-and-out overturn on-field decisions, even with sufficient video evidence.
Redemption of sorts emerged from VAR’s exposure of some trademark sh*thousery from trademark sh*thouse Neymar, in winning a penalty (no inverted commas needed) against Peru, when Brazil were only one-up. The award looked wrong on initial viewing, with Neymar’s unbalancing out-of-synch with Renato Tapia’s challenge. And the VAR video explained everything, exposing Neymar’s backheel into Tapia’s perineal area. Yes, right up there; remarkable skill in itself. But no penalty. And, maybe such acute observation will make Neymar think twice about any future penalty box sh*thousery (it won’t).
Case numbers continue to annoy. Eighty-two cases from 6,926 tests up to Friday, according to Brazil’s health ministry (which at least hasn’t been run by a General since WAY back in…er…March). Cases in all four host cities, among five camps (Brazil’s first three opponents – Venezuela, Peru and Colombia – plus Bolivia and Chile). And, worst of all, 45 competition workers, with each case happening in supposedly Covid-secure environments.
Mercifully, no-one has died. But South American confederation Conmebol have taken SOME positive action to isolate one of the infected players…by banning Bolivia’s Marcelo Martins for his, pitch-perfect, criticism of them, questioning what they would do “if someone dies” and stating that only “MONEY” was “important” to them.
Martins deleted and apologised for his Instagram comments, in lawyerly language which also hinted at a future in politics: “Regrettably, my concern” about Covid stopping him from playing “with my beloved national team” against Paraguay “was incorrectly interpreted by those” now residing under a bus, ”who manage my public communications.”
He was nonetheless banned from Bolivia’s loss to Chile. And Conme’s disciplinary bods warned him that if he was right criticised them again, he faced a one-year suspension. He will return for Bolivia’s next game, against Uruguay next Thursday. However, they could be all-but-out by then, as their last game is against Group favourites Argentina, and two team-mates have tested positive since his comments, after Martins was one of three to miss the Paraguay match.
Still, he got an ‘answer’ to his concluding Instagram question. “Is a player’s life worth nothing?” as Conme decided his comments were worth the $20,000 they fined him for them. Wankers.
I’ll report again after the groups. Bar Venezuela/Peru, the only likely issues are the final group placings, which dictate knock-out stage pairings. And Conme need a Brazil/Argentina final., as the poor lambs have already lost enough money.