Not too long ago someone asked me for my opinion of the Copa America before anyone had even kicked a ball in anger and River Plate were not crying their way to second tier football. After a somewhat lengthy conversation going into the detail of some of the teams and players involved the guy looked at me, chuckled and with a rye smile uttered “So Brazil or Argentina? No one else has a chance do they?” While written down in print it looks more like a question, it should really read more like a statement. The general consensus in Europe and much of the world seems to be that South America is made up of two footballing countries, the rest don’t really exist.
A little over six weeks later and here we are just 90 minutes away from Paraguay’s very own Larissa Riquelme stripped naked and running through the streets of Asuncion. The only thing in the way of every teenage boy’s dream is Uruguay. The forgotten nation in many respects. The country who won the first World Cup, the team who won their second World Cup in the cauldron of the Maracana in front of 170,000 Brazilians. This is also the nation who can create history and overtake Argentina and go to 15 Copa America wins.
Despite the fact Argentina and Brazil seem to have forgotten how to play the beautiful game this Copa America has been one of the strangest and at times tedious in recent history with its fair share of talking points. Sure, we’ve not seen the silky football we wanted to see and a lot of it’s been scrappy and full of draws but it makes those special moments all the better for it and ones we’ll cherish when we look back on 2011.
Peru and Venezuela, who started the tournament at 100/1 and 40/1, battled their way to the Semis only to bow out to Sundays finalists. Paraguay haven’t even won a game during the whole tournament, securing five 90 minute draws and not even scoring a goal in the knockout rounds. A number of fantastic goalkeeping displays and a specifically terrible one from Colombia’s Martinez sorted out the Quarter Finals and gave us all a new appreciation for the most loneliest men on the pitch.
After a slow start its been a very good Copa for the neutral, culminating in Sunday’s final. Uruguay will start Sunday as favourites and rightly so with a number of class players to call upon. Luis Suarez starts the match with the aim of becoming top scorer after his double against Peru sent him to join top of the standings with Aguero on three. Of course Uruguay have the expertise of Diego Forlan, while Edison Cavani is touch and go to make Sunday’s final.
Paraguay on the other hand have somewhat of a problem, going forward. While on paper a frontline of Santa Cruz, Nelson Valdes and Lucas Barrios doesn’t look too bad, four games without a goal in this tournament must be a worrying statistic for coach Gerardo Martino. Lucas Barrios’s rather impressive domestic form both for Colo Colo (49 goals in 53 appearances) and for Borussia Dortmund (35 goals in 65 appearances) in particular. He has so far failed to replicate his league form on the international stage, especially at last years World Cup and this year’s Copa America where his only return has been a single goal.
Perhaps Paraguay’s trump card will come in the form of Marcelo Estigarribia. The 23 year old winger has sometimes been the only spark in a blunt Paraguayan attack and has been a personal highlight to watch at this tournament. He’s recently been linked with a move to Italian giants Juventus and a performance in Sunday’s showpiece will no doubt increase his value as Le Mans potentially look set to cash in.
It would be extremely rude of me not to single out Muslera and Villar before Sunday. The two goalkeepers have to be noted as potential match winners. Their all round performance this summer, in particular two terrific Quarter Final displays mean they are both crucial to their respective nations.
Muslera’s double save against Tevez and then Aguero was a fantastic piece of goalkeeping and played a big part psychologically going into penalties. The same can be said of Paraguay’s captain Villar who stopped Brazil at every turn. After seeing a goalkeeper thwart every effort you had at goal during 120 minutes it must be so deflating to go one on one with him. A penalty shoot out in Sunday’s final could go for a long time if both guys are on top form.
Perhaps the same person who told me that Brazil and Argentina are the only two teams in South America will reconsider his thinking after the past few weeks. Maybe the end of the tournament will be met with a new love for the smaller countries of this great continent and how they interpret the game. More than likely though the world will forget about the impressive team displays of Uruguay and Paraguay and sadly go on ignoring South Americas ‘other’ delights.