Copa America 2021: The Semi-Finals – The Business End

by | Jul 10, 2021

They got what they wanted. Brazil/Argentina was the big-name final South American confederation CONMEBOL (Conme) needed in order to ‘justify’ holding this wretched 2021 Copa America tournament at all. But they only just got it. Very, VERY just.

Brazil 1 Peru 0. (Time of first incorrect reference to Richarlison passing to Everton as “ironic, that”: 4 minutes 46 seconds).

You knew it was the Copa’s business end when you heard the dulcet tones of BBC regular Mark Scott on commentary. And if that didn’t convince you, the very fact of co-commentators, let alone ones as high-profile as the audibly interchangeable Leon Osman and Stephen Warnock, proved it.

Brazil’s first-half against Peru was their best attacking performance of this Copa. Although that isn’t saying much, and certainly not as much as American football journo Grant Wahl thought. “Pretty good chance that Brazil is better than any team in the Euros,” he tweeted in what the time of his tweet suggested was response to Brazil’s goal. Most of those (OK, us) who replied disagreed, and were accused of Euro-centricism. But Mark Riding nailed it: “From someone who’s watched more than one minute of the Copa America, he’s wrong.”

Brazil WERE good for 45 minutes, though. Neymar was on it from the get-go. Lucas Paqueta justified his starting berth, having won the quarter-final as a half-time sub. Richarlison didn’t fall over feigning bad injury for…oooh…minutes. And even then he gave up halfway through, as the referee only needed competency in the laws of the game (not a given at this Copa, I know) to book Richarlison’s “assailant” for a cynical, if physically harmless, foul. In the second half, incidentally, Richarlison was genuinely nudged in the back in the penalty box, but “crying wolf” might well have been trending before he hit the ground.

The Selecao were denied a 19th-minute lead by Peruvian custodian Pedro Gallese’s genuinely fantastic double-save from close range Neymar and Richarlison drives, which came only 20 seconds after an only slightly less wonderful stop from Casemiro’s curling, brilliantly struck 30-yarder. There was little wonder he needed treatment afterwards, having saved Neymar’s shot with his head (cue “seeing stars” reference from Scott…Neymar, Richarlison…stars? Geddit?).

Sixteen minutes later, they did lead, Neymar combining fabulous close control with lucky breaks to momentarily put three defenders out of commission before squaring the ball for Paqueta to drill his second consecutive winning goal past Gallese. And such was their control of the game until the break, you feared another four-nil to match the sides’ group game, which was in its very closing stages before it became as one-sided as THIS.

But Peru’s Argentine manager, Ricardo Gareca, made some half-time tactical tweaks and suddenly there was ample opportunity to ponder aloud why Italo-Peruvian striker Gianluca Lapadula was wearing a face-mask, when he had been struck in the chest and had only feigned facial injury to help get Paraguay captain Gustavo Gomez sent off in the quarter-finals.

Lapadula took only four minutes to force the first genuine save from Brazilian keeper Ederson, with a curling left-foot shot from the edge of the area. Just past the hour, Ederson saved a Raziel Garcia drive. And on 81 minutes, Peru got that “one chance” which commentators traditionally insist, without overwhelming empirical evidence, always comes late in games. Alexander Gallens beat Ederson to Yoshimar Yotun’s free-kick but glanced his header wide when a firm header was required. “How do you like ‘em?” Osman asked, before upholding the commentary tradition with “I knew there’d be a big chance for Peru. Is that the last one they’re gonna get?” It was.

The right result over the 90 minutes then. But sympathy for Peru was only heightened by Scott’s crib sheet including the nugget about Gareca scoring Argentina’s winning goal in a 1985 World Cup qualifier against Peru, to knock them out and begin a run of Peruvian qualification failures. This made Gareca as popular an appointment as Peru supremo as Diego Maradona would have been for the England job after “Big” Sam Allardyce’s pint-of-wine-based demise. Life, eh?

Argentina 1 Colombia 1 (Argentina win 3-2 on penalties)

Argentina/Colombia was beautiful and brutal in equal measure. But did Colombia strike the right balance between football and free-floating violence. They recovered well from conceding early. Yet their attentions were too-often divided between matchball and opponents’ legs. Once Argentina introduced Angel de Maria from the bench, they looked the likelier winners. And Colombia’s attitude came back to bite THEM in the shoot-out.

Co-commentator Stephen Warnock loved the physicality, laughing loudly off-microphone at one ‘robust’ challenge. But other “noises off” were the story of the night. Argentina’s win was, on the surface, a tale of two Martinezs. Striker Lautaro scored their goal and keeper Emiliano saved three Colombian penalty shoot-out kicks. It soon emerged, though, that Martinez won the penalty shoot-out through more than just his saves.

The lack of a crowd made it clear that noises were being made on the pitch as Colombian spot-kickers approached goal. And with the most effective effects microphones being behind the goal, Martinez’ noises were the clearest, including the grunts which accompanied his saves. There may be effects mics in the overhead camera which shoots the shoot-out from behind the kicker and makes the tiniest keeper look as if they are wearing the goalframe across their shoulders. But they would have been too far and too mobile to broadcast any Colombian responses at Martinez-matching volume.

Juan Cuadrado netted his well-struck penalty in respectful silence. Martinez then informed “surprise second spot-kick taker” Davinson Sanchez that he was going “to eat you up, brother,” which was too much for the already terrified-looking Spurs man. However, Yerry Mina and Miguel Borja appeared to be the main targets of Argentinian ire, and not just from Martinez.

“You’re laughing but you’re nervous,” Martinez ‘informed’ Mina, before repeating the “eat you up” threat and stating, correctly, “I know where you’ll shoot and then save it.” But after Mina’s miss, an unusually het-up Messi, of all people, screamed from the centre-circle “how about dancing now?” for reasons uncertain. This Copa means a LOT to Messi, who has yet to win one. And he has often strayed beyond his normal understated on-pitch demeanour, almost into Ronaldo-like petulance.

“You were running your mouth off during half-time,” Martinez ‘informed’ Borja, before the clearly cat-loving referee Jesus Valenzuela intervened when Martinez kept saying “pussy.” Borja was unphased by Martinez’s possibly too-personal suggestion that “you like looking, huh?” Although his tippy-toed goal celebration wasn’t quite as cool as the tree-trunk-ish centre-forward imagined. And it was Colombia’s last cause for celebration of this Copa.

In quieter times, Messi had already set up Martinez L once before receiving Giovani Lo Celso’s fabulous pass and serving up Martinez L’s seventh-minute opener. Within two minutes, Martinez E somehow blocked Cuadrado’s close-range shot. And the last nine minutes of the half were as frantic as the first nine. Wilmar Barrios thumped the post from long-distance. Mina thumped the bar from short-distance two minutes later and on 44 minutes, Colombia keeper David Ospina, the quiet man in the shoot-out, nearly punched Nicolas Gonzalez’s header into the roof of the net .

Colombia’s half-time team talk mustn’t have strayed far from “get Messi,” as half-time sub Frank Fabra led a series of clattering fouls on the Copa’s top-scorer. But after all that aggression, they levelled on 61 minutes. Sub Edwin Cardona’s quickly-taken, brilliant free-kick found Luis Diaz, who outpaced and outflanked the defence before dinking a lovely finish from a tight angle past Martinez E.

Enter Di Maria. He’d been on the pitch seven minutes when he pounced onto a loose pass in the centre-circle, rounded Ospina, who was 30 yards from goal for reasons only he need ever know, and squared the ball for Martinez L, only for Martinez L to pick out Barrios W on the line, with the rest of the goal almost audibly gaping.

Argentina were then denied the clearest semi-final penalty of the week (not that there was much competition, ahem), when Sanchez bent and stretched Nicolas Otamendi’s shirt. Valenzuela must have wondered why Otamendi was suddenly wearing hoops. But he’d had earpiece problems all match. So his video assistant was probably in a place where no-one could hear him scream. Then Messi found no room in the box from Di Maria’s pass yet STILL hit the post.

This game will be remembered for the shoot-out antics, though. “It’s like being out on the wicket at an Ashes test match, the amount of sledging going on,” Scott noted, although he didn’t specify what was being said. So I assumed there were swearies. Indeed, there may have been. The sub-titles on US channel Fox Sports 1, from which I’ve quoted above, may have been bowdlerised. Mind you, maybe Scott’s Spanish wasn’t 100% reliable. “The referee’s told him to button it” didn’t sound like a precise translation.

Still, typical bloody Villa, eh? Whatever Martinez said. And hopefully there’s a few EPL penalty-takers with the imagination to take on Martinez. Meanwhile, one wonders how Neymar and Richarlison in particular would respond to such stuff. Though Argentina would have to improve on this showing for us to discover.