Fickle Copa America quarterfinals yield surprising remaining quartet
SAN JUAN, Argentina -- The full moon shone bright and white over San Juan, its domination of the chill sky seeming a symbol of the lunacy that took over the Copa America this weekend. The tournament -- perhaps any tournament -- has never known a series of quarterfinals like it, as the three group-winners and the hosts all crashed out. The machinations of the schedulers, who had done everything in their power to ensure a third successive Brazil-Argentina final, are left looking a little silly.
Charles Reep, the British long-ball theorist, spoke a lot of nonsense, but one of his great insights was that there is an essential randomness to international competition. The three-week or monthlong span of a major tournament simply isn't long enough for luck to work itself out. For that matter, even a domestic-league season is too short to be influenced by random factors. James Walmsley, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, hypothesizes that a season would have to be seven years long before it could be reasonably be considered "fair." Six games is nothing like enough.
Often, of course, the better teams do prevail, but sometimes there are weekends like this. Colombia missed a penalty and hit the post but lost 2-0 to Peru. Argentina was thwarted repeatedly by the brilliance of Nestor Muslera, the Uruguay goalkeeper, but lost on penalties. In Paraguay's Justo Villar, Brazil also met a goalkeeper in sensational form, and Fred had a header cleared off the line; it too, lost on penalties. By the time it came to Sunday evening's game in San Juan, the pattern was well established.
Venezuela is dogged, but frustrating, both to watch and, you imagine, to play against. Tomas Rincon and Franklin Lucena have been two of the players of the tournament, mopping up at the back of the midfield. It has technically gifted attacking midfielders and forwards in Cesar Gonzalez, Juan Arango, Nicolas Fedor and Giancarlo Maldonado, but it does spend an awful lot of time looking for free kicks. There were 31 in the first 45 minutes against Chile -- evidence both of tactical fouling and tactical being fouled.
It doesn't make for much of a spectacle, but it was effective partly because Chile kept dumbly conceding free kicks. First Arango crossed for Oswaldo Vizcarrando to capitalize on some slack marking and head Venezuela into the lead. Then, after Chile had twice hit the woodwork before finally equalizing, Gabriel Cichero forced the ball over the line after a right-wing free kick had caused havoc in the box. Venezuela has never previously reached the last four of the Copa America; the only negative on a night that will live on in its football history was the late red card shown to Rincon, presumably for clipping Jorge Valdivia with a flailing arm.
In the last four Venezuela will meet Paraguay. Gerardo Martino had opted for a much more attacking approach in this tournament than he had at the World Cup, but at the back of the midfield he left out Nestor Ortigoza, a ferocious tackler with a deft touch, for the more defensive Victor Caceres. He would probably argue the decision was vindicated, both by the result and the number of interceptions Caceres made, but it did mean that Paraguay offered far less of a threat to Brazil than it had in the group game between the two, in which Brazil was fortunate to plunder a last-minute equalizer through Fred.
Brazil will question itself. Mano Menezes was supposed to offer a return to the thrilling days of the past, to approach the altar of joga bonito. Observing how often Brazil's opponents seemed cowed simply by facing the yellow shorts, Rob Smyth once noted that "the greatest trick Brazil ever pulled was to convince the world it existed," but it may be that when it is not intimidating opponents, the mythical style becomes a burden to itself. After all, Dunga, to whom Menezes was supposed to be an antidote, won a Copa America and the Confederations Cup before (unfortunate) defeat in the World Cup quarterfinals.
In this tournament, Brazil toiled, struggling to get the balance right between attack and defense. On the two occasions it kept clean sheets, it failed to score; both times it did score -- two against Paraguay in the group and four against Ecuador, it let in two. That is a simplistic way of looking at things, and it had the better of the stalemates in the opening game against Venezuela and the quarterfinal, but then it was fortunate to get away with a draw in the group game against Paraguay.
Neymar and Ganso, the two great prospects brought in to the senior side in preparation for the 2014 World Cup, were inconsistent, showing flashes of talent but too often fading from games, something that calls into question the whole notion of using the Copa as preparation for the World Cup. Bedding in young players is a fine idea in theory, but three years is a long time in football, and Neymar and Ganso are both still young: what if it turns out in a couple of years that they are not the right young players to be promoting? What if exposure too soon damages them?
Perhaps an even bigger surprise than Venezuela's progress is that of Peru, who had finished bottom of the Conmebol World Cup qualifying. There is something about Sergio Markarian's side that is reminiscent of Ghana at the World Cup. Although there is talent in midfield, particularly Juan Vargas and William Chiroque (although he has a hamstring injury and is a major doubt for the semifinal), the keys are defensive organization and a brave and industrious lone frontman in Paolo Guerrero, supported by those runners from deep. Its play is not necessarily particularly aesthetically pleasing, but it probably gets the best out of a relatively limited squad.
Facing Markarian in the last four is the Uruguay of Oscar Washington Tabarez who, although only two years his junior at 64, played under him at Bella Vista. As pupil-versus-master showdowns go, few can have been as superannuated as this. What both have shown, though, is the value of an astute tactician. Yes, both Peru and Uruguay rode their luck to reach the last four, but both had managers who manipulated the percentages as much in their favor as was possible.