After three weeks of bad soccer on worse fields, the 2011 Copa America has mercifully come to an end. After beating Paraguay 3-0 in the final, Uruguay stood tall after 12 teams contested 25 games, with medals around their necks to match star striker Diego Forlan's flowing mane -- and without the Helping Hand of Luis Suarez, this time.
It was educational. Here's what we learned:
1. What Uruguay accomplished is quite extraordinary.
Of the 12 countries in Copa America, Uruguay has by far the smallest population. At 3.5 million people, the Uruguayans are dwarfed in number by Brazil (191 million) and Argentina (40 million). Only Paraguay -- the other finalist -- comes close at just less than 7 million. Yet for the second consecutive major tournament, the other being the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay was the last of those teams standing. Given its small population and profoundly positive tactics, what Uruguay has managed to do these past two summers has to be applauded. It is punching well above its weight.
2. This tournament was hugely disappointing.
Rather than a beacon of the South American soccer style and spirit that we look forward to every two, three or four years -- or whenever the continent gets around to staging another tournament -- this Copa wasn't even the most interesting tournament of the summer. While the Women's World Cup offered us improbable drama (on the field), numerous breakout performances and Cinderella runs, the Copa gave us dull games, 11 draws (five 0-0s!) and a shade more than two goals per game. Worse still, there was no Samba versus Tango; no great and long-overdue redemption of Argentina on its home soil; no glorious homecoming for Lionel Messi; no Brazil, Chile, Argentina or Colombia past the quarterfinals; nothing worth watching from Brazil; and just a lone good half from Argentina. Only Uruguay played pleasing soccer. Major bummer.
3. The Copa should be moved back a year.
Now that the Copa seems to have finally settled into a regular quadrennial schedule after going back and forth between playing every four, two and three years since 1989, it should consider playing two summers after the World Cup, rather than one. (This won't happen anytime soon, since the 2015 Copa has already been awarded to Brazil and the 2019 edition to Chile.) During this tournament, all the teams that had played in the World Cup -- save for Uruguay -- looked tired. And who can blame them, since they've not had a rest since the summer of 2009. Club seasons now end in late May and start in July, so the Copa would benefit from giving its teams a summer off after the World Cup.
4. The stakes could stand to be increased.
And if the Copa can't be moved back a year, why not increase the stakes? Argentina, for all the pressure it faced to win it, could easily have been mistaken for disinterested. Maybe that's unfair, but adding a little fuel to the fire could nevertheless help stoke the passions to lift the Copa. Perhaps the winner of the Copa is automatically given one of CONMEBOL's four and a half berths to the next World Cup. Extreme yes, but all in the interest of staging a watchable tournament.
5. So could the number of substitutions.
Again, if the tournament can't be moved -- and I concede that it probably can't -- why not give players a breather when possible? Why not increase the number of substitutions teams can make during this tournament? More fresh legs will make for better soccer. It's unconventional, but there's no good reason not to do this.
6. Golden and silver goals are due for a comeback.
Somehow, the drab Paraguayans wrangled silver medals from this tournament without winning a single game. That'll never do. By virtue of the aforementioned draws, four of the seven games in the knockout round went to extra time. And three of those four went to penalties. Favorites Brazil and Argentina were both knocked out on those cosmically unfair spot kicks. And so Paraguay squeaked through to the final on back-to-back penalty triumphs over Brazil and Venezuela. Golden and silver goals increase the incentive to keep attacking during extra time, rather than ride out the clock until penalties. It might not work, because it also incentivizes defending more, to avoid giving up a game-ending goal, but it's worth a try. Anything to avoid another tournament decided mostly from the spot.
7. Brazil is now in full-on rebuilding mode.
If you're the Selecao, you know there's something very wrong when your defense is your biggest asset. This is a moment that doesn't come along very often -- I can't really remember another one -- but Brazil is now in full-on rebuilding mode. There is some young promise, but until it learns to play efficiently and cohesively, Brazil could face a few years of austerity. And this with the World Cup on home soil on the horizon.