What Is Going On At The Copa America?

Argentina 0-0 Colombia

Sit with that for a moment.  Argentina has now played two matches, drawn two, and scored all of one goal.  Needless to say, the Argentinian players were booed off the field.  They now have one match left against junior varsity high school team from Costa Rica who play Bolivia tomorrow.

This looks bad for Argentina, but the truth is that the entire Copa America has been absolutely insane.  Every match thus far that has pit two South American sides against each other has ended in a draw: Argentina 1-1 Bolivia; Brazil 0-0 Venezuela; Paraguay 0-0 Ecuador; Uruguay 1-1 Peru; Argentina 0-0 Colombia.

The two only matches that weren’t draws were the two that featured CONCACAF nations, both of whom sent in severely understrength sides, given that the Gold Cup was last month.  Unsurprisingly, the South Americans won, although not in particularly convincing fashion: Colombia 1-0 Costa Rica, and Chile 2-1 Mexico.

So I ask again.  What is going on at the Copa America?  Could it be that there is now a parity in South America that verges on the ridiculous?  A parity that threatens not just the Brazil/Argentina hegemony (and if we’re honest Argentina hasn’t won anything since 1993), but also the traditional established hierarchy of the continent?  Is it possible that come the 2014, the non-Brazil entries in the World Cup might include Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia, but not Argentina or Uruguay?  Ever since River Plate was relegated everything in South America has gone topsy-turvy.

Argentina are in real trouble right now.  Although 8 of the 12 teams advance to the quarterfinals, Argentina now have to be thinking that even if they advance they may have to do so as a top ranked 3rd place team.  Which also means Argentina could be playing Brazil in the quarterfinals.  Should Argentina advance–words I never thought I would write.

I have no idea what is going on. Is it psychological (the pressure of playing at home)?  Is it tactical (the wrong players are being used)?  Is it the weather?  The team is just not gelling.  Is it Messi or his teammates or both?  As far as I know, the Copa America doesn’t air on television here, so I can only go by reading reports and game casts.

So what is going on?

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U20 South American Championships: Stick A Fork In It, It’s Done

It is actually not done.  As I am writing, it is the 70th minute of the final match: Uruguay v. Brazil.  But I don’t need for it to end to know what the result will be: Brazil has won the match and the tournament.  Brazil has won by a lot.  The loss to Argentina was a fluke.  At this moment, Brazil is up 5-0.

Poor Chile is the goat.  Ecuador beat them 1-0, which means that the young Chileans will watch while all their final group opponents will compete at the World Youth Cup.  It’s a bit unfair because Chile actually performed better than Colombia who got a total of one draw and four losses in the entire group, but those are the perks of hosting the tournament.

Probably even more bitter than the Chileans are the Argentinians who came in third and thus are out of the Olympics, the only tournament where they have accomplished anything in the past 17 years (aside from youth tournaments, which count less than the Olympics.)  They needed Uruguay to win by 5 goals.  Brazil, in the 80th minute, just scored a sixth goal to Uruguay’s none.   What a nightmare for the Celeste (although at least they made it to the Olympics this time.)  Neymar scored two, bringing his tournament total to nine goals.  Like I said before, he won the Golden Boot, after his first match (in that first match he scored as many as the next highest goalscorer in the tournament.)  His teammate Lucas, another Barcelona prospect, scored a hat trick.  The Brazilians must really hate Uruguay.  There was no mercy tonight.

I don’t know how Brazil lost to Argentina; they are clearly the superior side of this tournament and the continent.  When they turned it on, like against Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile, they left all competition in the dust.  This is something like the 11th of these championships that Brazil have won.  Brazil just produces bigger, stronger, and faster youth players than the rest of the continent; it’s kind of surprising that the senior side has been so hit-and-miss of late.

It will be interesting to see if Brazil can finally win the Olympics (I’m betting not.)  But for me, I am more interested to see how they perform at the World Youth Cup.  The rest of the world is not really scared of Brazil anymore, and it will be fascinating how the skill of the Europeans matches up against the power of the Brazilians.  (I never thought I would ever write that sentence.)  Two years ago, Ghana beat Brazil in the finals.  I am sure they would love to do it again.

The match just ended.  Uruguay’s misery is over; Brazil has definitively won.  No Maracanazo this time.  It was indeed the Neymar Tournament.

Football News (Part II)

Final update for tonight about the u20 South American Championship.  Brazil beat Ecuador 1-0 (without the suspended Neymar.)  As a result, Ecuador is officially out of the Olympics hunt and in danger of being the tournament goat.

On Saturday, Uruguay and Brazil will duke it out for the title, however both of them will probably go to the Olympics.  Even if Brazil lose to Uruguay (and they will have to lose to miss out on the Olympics), the goal differential looks like to be too much for Argentina to overcome (Brazil is +6 and Argentina as a 0 goal differential and Argentina will have to beat Colombia by at least 4 goals.)  The good news however, is that Argentina made the Youth World Cup again after missing out on the last one.  The loss of the Olympics is going to hurt though, especially since Argentina is the the two-time defending Olympic champion.

Ecuador’s players must be kicking themselves.  If they had beaten Uruguay instead of drawing them (which almost a reality but for one of the all-time great misses in football history), then they would still be in the hunt for both an Olympic berth and the title.  As it is, they need to beat or draw Chile just to qualify for the Youth World Cup.

So the final match day on Saturday is going to be extremely exciting.  The title is still up for grabs, as is one Olympic berth and a final spot in the Youth World Cup.  What a great tournament.  South America never fails to entertain.

Finally, I want to link to a great drawing I came across.  Matt Groening of Simpsons fame immortalized the Spanish National Team.  His rendition of Carles Puyol is spot on.

Football News (Part I)

I am writing this while following the U-20 South American Championship, which is currently in progress.  Chile beat Colombia 3-1 and Uruguay reached the Olympics at Argentina’s expense.  Yes, believe it or not Uruguay beat Argentina 1-0.  Soy Celeste! It is still too early to determine whether Uruguay will win the tournament, but at this point it matters not; the Olympics were always the main goal.  Uruguay as a footballing nation has much too be proud of.  After a spectacular World Cup, it looks like a new generation is coming up to continue the achievements of the current one.  It would be very nice to see football’s first great champion rejoin the ranks of the the world elite.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

So what does this mean?  Well, I don’t know yet other than the fact that Uruguay is going to the Olympics and Argentina is mathematically incapable of winning this tournament.  If Brazil beats Ecuador, then Brazil will probably get the other Olympic spot, although that is not a guarantee.  The final match of the tournament will be Brazil v. Uruguay.  Shades of the Maracanazo perhaps?  Probably not.

Either Argentina or Brazil is not making the Olympics this year, which is a huge deal in Latin America (even though it will just be junior teams.)  I am sure fans in both nations are on edge, especially in Argentina.  If Brazil wins, Argentinians will have to root for a Uruguay victory on Saturday.  If Ecuador wins, well both Argentina and Brazil will have to pray that Chile can beat a better team.  My guess is no.

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Speaking of Argentina, the never-ending, media-created war between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo offered up yet another battle today in a completely meaningless international friendly.  How would Messi do without the force of Barcelona behind him?  Well, Argentina won, 2-1 proving that their destruction of Spain was no fluke (although in fairness to Spain given the timing of the match and the travel, La Furia Roja had no chance.)  Messi scored the winning goal in the 89th minute (a penalty), assisted Ángel Di María for Argentina’s first goal, and was generally the best player out there today.  Cristiano Ronaldo scored Portugal’s lone goal, although the media declared Messi the winner.  Once again though the story was about Messi’s teamwork and how covered the entire pitch.  The takeaway: Portugal are an effective but limited side, and Argentina are capable of both brilliant play (Messi and the offense) and near self-destruction (the defense).  We already knew all this.  Sergio Batista’s task is to ensure that there is more brilliant play and less self-destruction, although he is fighting the weight of history.

[ed: As I write this, Brazil’s u20 side is beating Ecuador 1-0 in the 27th minute.  I sense this is going to be a long night for both Ecuador and Argentina.]

Not much else of interest out of the friendlies except that Liechtenstein can win a match if it plays fellow minnow San Marino (1-0).  Also, Bolivia is so bad they cannot even beat Latvia (2-1).

The big question about these friendlies is why?  It’s horrible timing, a week before the Champions League resumes.  The calendar is already too congested.  I feel like I write about one international tournament after another.  FIFA could have waited a few weeks for this round of friendlies, closer to the next round of  the Euro 2012 qualifiers.  At least then there would be some seeming purpose.

FIFA is killing the international game, as evidenced by how little interest there was for these matches.  The matches today only reinforced what we already knew: Germany cannot beat Italy (they drew 1-1 despite the Germans leading most of the match); France always beats Brazil (1-0); Spain will tiki-taka opposition to death (1-0 over Colombia, the goal being scored at the very end despite 77% possession for Spain); The Netherlands are very good and Austria are not (3-1); and England can win when nothing is on the line (2-1 over Denmark).

The clubs are starting to get fed up, and they are just as bloated and powerful as FIFA is.  When the inevitable battle comes, I hope FIFA falls hard.

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The best news that I heard today was from Grant Wahl over at SI.com.  In his mailbag this week he said that CONMEBOL wants MLS teams to compete at the Copa Libertadores.  Of course he also said that MLS has heard nothing from CONMEBOL about it, and it is quite a ways off from happening.  However, if it does happen (please, please, please!) I would watch any MLS team’s matches in a heartbeat either on television or at a nearby US stadium.  And you know that the MLS teams would take the Copa Libertadores far more seriously than they do the CONCACAF Champions League.

[ed: 53 minutes into the the Brazil/Ecuador match, and Brazil is still leading 1-0.]

Before leaving the Copa Libertadores, I should mention that the group stages started today in Rio de Janeiro with a match between Brazil’s national league champion Fluminense took on Argentina’s 2010 Clausura winner Argentinos Juniors.  It ended up a 2-2 draw.  This is a tough, tough group too.  Not only are the champions of Brazil and Argentina in this group, but also perennial Uruguayan powerhouse Nacional and Mexico’s América.  I cannot wait to see how this tournament unfolds.

How The U-20 South American Champions Got Its Name Back

Since this tournament began, I have been referred to it as the Neymar Tournament, because it was in part a way for Brazil to showcase its Next Big Thing to the rest of the continent and the European clubs.  (With the exception of Neymar, most members of the squad will have a rough time trying to get into the 2014 World Cup team.  Maybe some will be ready for 2018.)

In the beginning of the tournament, Neymar impressed.  He is still the leading goal scorer, and at this stage, it is unlikely that another player will overtake him.  But Neymar is also a time bomb ready to explode when he doesn’t get his way.  (This is all too common in football on every continent, and quite frankly it is getting worse.)  In Brazil’s last match against Argentina, Neymar once again revealed that he is a loose cannon.  He get a yellow card for arguing with the referee, and because this is his second card, he will have to sit out of the next match.  It is important to remember that while he is gone, Brazil is trying to qualify for an Olympic berth in a competition that just got tighter.  He is simply not dependable.  Why Barcelona, or any major club for that matter, is so interested in him is beyond me.  But Zlatan Ibrahimovic went from Juventus to Inter to Barcelona to AC Milan, so clearly being a poison in the dressing room is not a concern for the super-clubs.

In this final group stage, Neymar has really lost the plot, and it’s not just about scoring.  His attitude and his theatrics, especially his diving, obscure his talent.  Neymar has Robinho written all over him, and it is sad because Brazil is due for another major talent to emerge.  Since early 2006, no Brazilian has lived up to Ronaldinho, including Ronaldinho (and Kaka, who was never as great as his press suggested, has become second-rate upon leaving Milan for Madrid.)  For whatever reason, the big Brazilian stars just haven’t been shining as brightly.  One need look no further than the 2010 World Cup to see how far Brazil’s international game has fallen, and international success is Brazil’s crowning achievement.

The other reason that this is no longer the Neymar Tournament is because Argentina has suddenly turned into a different team.  Now the media focus is squarely on Juan Iturbe, who has been unfairly tagged as the next Messi (or the “Guarani Messi” because he was born to Paraguayan parents and plays in Paraguay, although his club status is a little bit complicated, and he’ll be going to Porto anyway.)  Iturbe has indeed scored some goals that are Messi (and Maradona)-esque.  It is a credit to the effectiveness of the Argentinian youth system that Iturbe has committed to playing for Argentina when it would be much easier for him to earn a spot on Paraguay’s senior national team.  Calling up Iturbe to the Argentinian national squad is no guarantee.  Although he is a terrific talent, he is no Messi.  I fear that the hype may turn Iturbe into another Sergio “Kun” Aguero–a player of great skill and important to his club, but ultimately somewhat overrated–or into a complete bomb altogether.

If I were to rename the tournament, it would be the Iturbe Tournament, because in the battle of the starlets, he came out on top.  However, because this tournament has become unpredictable again (and thus more interesting to the neutral fan), it deserves to have its real name restored.  Henceforth this is no longer the Neymar Tournament.

Game On at the U20 South American Championship

The biggest match of the Neymar Tournament, Argentina v. Brazil, took place today.  Argentina won 2-1 (Brazil was down to 10 men within the first 10 minutes of the match.)  Neymar scored no goals; Juan Iturbe scored the winner for Argentina.  Uruguay beat Chile 1-0 and Colombia and Ecuador drew 0-0.

Uruguay, leading the standings with 7 points, has already qualified for the Youth World Cup with its win today.  Brazil and Argentina are tied for second place in the standings with 6 points each.  Ecuador is just behind with 5 points.

There are two matches left in the tournament.  Uruguay has the toughest draw of the top four, having to play both Brazil and Argentina.  Argentina may be able to relax a little after Uruguay (if the Albiceleste win) because its final match is against hapless Colombia, who is already assured of a Cup bid and pretty eliminated from the Olympics.  In the next match, Argentina plays Uruguay and Ecuador plays Brazil.  Brazil beat Ecuador in the first group stage, but it was a rough 1-0 victory (Brazil’s advance was already assured by that time though, and Neymar sat out.)  Argentina beat Uruguay 2-1 in their first match of the first group stage.

Chile will next play Colombia in a match that no one will care about.  Chile is pretty much out.  Yes, there are still two more matches, but really, they’re out.  Chile can only play spoiler to Ecuador now, and even that is dependent on circumstance.

The Youth World Cup teams entrants will be Uruguay  and Colombia definitely and Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador probably.

The Olympics berths will be . . . stay tuned.  If Brazil doesn’t get one, there will be hell to pay.

Copa Libertadores Blues

Now that Barcelona is up 3-0 against Atlético Madrid in the 80th minute, I feel like I can finally stop worrying and write a new post (I had a nightmare last night that Barcelona would lose to Atlético.  I woke up terrified.)  Fortunately, at this point in the match I do not see a collapse akin to Arsenal’s today in which the Gunners wasted a four goal lead and allowed Newcastle to earn a draw.  Seriously.

This week the first stage of the Copa Libertadores ended, and in a few weeks the main draw will begin.  The Copa Libertadores, for those who do not know, is the South American equivalent of the Champions League, although unlike every other FIFA conference, the South Americans believe (correctly) that their name for their tournament is way cooler, and so they kept it.

[ed: Barcelona won 3-0 with a Lionel Messi hat trick.  The Blaugrana are provisionally 10 points ahead of Real Madrid, and I can rest easier now.  Barça with their 16th consecutive La Liga victory, broke a La Liga record set 50 years ago by the Real Madrid of DiStefano and Puskas.]

The quality of the Copa Libertadores is very good, definitely the second best of the continental club championships, but it is nowhere near the level of the UEFA Champions League.  There is a very simple reason for that; the best players in South America tend to go to Europe during the height of their careers.  South American clubs, by contrast, are full of future stars, former stars, and never were or will be stars.

Which is not to say the quality is bad or that the tournament is not worth watching.  Quite the opposite.  In fact, in many ways the Copa Libertadores is far more interesting than the Champions League.  For example, one of the joys of the Copa Libertadores is to see new talent emerging.  This year’s competition will feature Neymar and (hopefully) Ganso of Santos, both of whom are destined to be future stars in Europe and the Brazil national team.  Hopefully cruel fate will not interfere.

Another compelling aspect of the Copa Libertadores is that because so many good players leave for Europe each year, the tournament is far less predictable.  In the Champions League, given the massive influx of money in the European game, the champion will almost certainly come from one of only a few teams from Spain, England, Italy, or Germany.  The last time one of the finalists did not come from one of those four countries was back in 2003 when a Mourinho-managed Porto (Portugal) beat Monaco (France).   Before that it was 1996.  Porto’s win was something of a swan song for the little guy; in the ensuing years, the number of clubs capable of competing at the top level–even from the top four nations–has significantly diminished.

No such problem in the Copa Libertadores.  Because the tournament showcases so much talent, players in South America leave, and the South American clubs–who have gotten paid a great deal of money for their departing player–have difficulty maintaining long term dominance, particularly in places like Brazil and Argentina.  The former giants of Argentina, River Plate and Boca Juniors are not even in this year’s edition (and have done terribly in their recent Argentinian league campaigns.)  Neither are Flamengo, São Paulo, or Vasco da Gama, three of Brazil’s most famous club sides.  The tournament is simply more open than the Champions League.

Having said that though, Brazilian sides are usually the overwhelming favorites.  For a long time, Brazilian clubs (well known for their short-sightedness) did not really care much about the Copa Libertadores.  As a result Argentinian sides heavily dominated, particularly Independiente and Boca.  In the early 90’s Brazil woke up to the possibilities of the Copa Libertadores, and the clubs (and fans) started to care.  Since 1992, there have only been three years when at least one of the finalists wasn’t Brazilian.  10 of the last 19 Libertadores titles have been won by Brazilian sides.

One of the Brazilian sides that qualified this year has already produced a poignant story in this competition.  That is Corinthians, São Paulo’s most supported club (and the second most supported after Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo.)  Despite being the second most popular club in Brazil, Corinthians have never won the Copa Libertadores.  The club and its fans desperately want to win, especially since the other major São Paulo clubs (Santos, Palmeiras, and, of course, São Paulo) already won at least one title.  (Ironically, Corinthians won a Club World Championship in 2000, but that is a different story.)  To add to the humiliation, a few years ago Corinthians were even relegated out of the top division.  This year the Corinthians fans expected their humiliation to finally end.  Their club had Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo–not the Cristiano version, the real one from Brazil.  These two men led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title and won all sorts of awards in Europe.  This was their chance to win the Libertadores too, maybe their last.  Especially Ronaldo; his knees demand his retirement.

But it was not to be.  Roberto Carlos sat out of because of injury, and Corinthians fell out of the Libertadores  fell out during the first stage.  They were eliminated by Colombia’s Deportes Tolima.  This was a huge blow to the fans; they are furious–some have rampaged.

Alas, two of the game’s modern legends may end their once illustrious careers in ignominy.  That too is football, and that is one of the reasons why both the Libertadores and the game is so compelling.