With the 2019 Copa America complete and hosts Brazil crowned as champions, Gab Marcotti dusts off his Monday Musings for a special Copa edition from Brazil.
Copa brand prevails despite CONMEBOL mistakes
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL -- The Copa America is football's oldest international competition: You can trace its roots back to 1916, making it not just older than the World Cup, but actually older than CONMEBOL itself. That and the fact that it is home to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and other footballing blue-bloods suggests it ought to be leading, rather than following. Or at least doing its own thing, like Wimbledon and the white tennis balls well into the 1980s.
In some ways, it does. Familiarity breeds contempt and there's an edge to these teams on the pitch that you don't get at the World Cup or the Euros. The South American bid for 2020 refers to four "hermanos" and in that sense, they're like the brothers who not only beat each other up but also harbor deep-rooted psychological issues they privately share with their shrinks. That's why you get the fouls, physicality and gamesmanship that is a turn-off to some but a reason to be alive to others. We're so used to the slick, glossy veneer of the Premier League and Champions League that the Copa can feel like a throwback, with the same characters who adorn our in-season football somehow time-traveling into the past.
If that alone were what defined this Copa America -- hypercompetitive games, occasional jaunts into the dark side, century-old rivalries and some of the very best players in the world -- it would be great. Alas, the 2019 Copa America threw up other wrinkles, entirely avoidable ones that make you think CONMEBOL could have done better.
The venues themselves were excellent (my personal favorite: the Arena do Gremio in Porto Alegre), which makes sense as we're only five years removed from the massive spending of the 2014 World Cup. But ticket prices were poorly thought out, with the cheapest costing more than double the average price of a domestic league fixture and average prices well over $100 for a number of games. That's why you had more than 20,000 empty seats for Brazil's home opener and just 11,000 showing up in Porto Alegre for Peru vs. Venezuela.
Sure, the Copa America is CONMEBOL's cash cow. But anybody who understands pricing structures knows that first and foremost, you want full grounds: They look good on TV, they yield extra revenue via parking and concessions, they make fans happy and involved. Not to mention the fact that (and this is basic arithmetic here) you earn more from selling 60,000 tickets at $20 each than 10,000 at $100 each.
The pitches themselves could have been better. It's currently winter in Brazil, which is basically perfect football weather. When you've got highly technical players, as so many Copa America teams do, why not put them in conditions where they can strut their stuff?
And finally there was VAR or, rather, not VAR itself, nor even the way it was used on the main, but the cack-handed way CONMEBOL dealt with controversy. The silence, both official and unofficial, after the Brazil vs. Argentina game was deafening and needless. Once again, CONMEBOL had not helped itself.
For those of us who love a certain kind of football, the Copa America brand is too strong, its protagonists too big and too important for it to be seriously damaged. Maybe that's what breeds the complacency. You can't help but feel, though, that this was a missed opportunity. And with the tournament moving to even years to coincide with the Euros from next season, you worry a bit about what happens when they have to further share the spotlight.
Tite does masterful job with Brazil
Tite and the Selecao did what was expected of them, lifting the Copa America at home just as they had done every other occasion it was played in Brazil. When you're expected to win and you deliver, the only way you get plaudits is if you do it in style and show progress. Unquestionably they have (and I'm writing this on the fifth anniversary of the Mineirazo) and that they've done it without Neymar is a further feather in the cap.
What strikes you most, though, is that, perhaps more than any other top side in the world, Brazil look like a club team and play with a chemistry and a tactical organization that international football often lacks. The fact that three of the back four (Dani Alves, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva) play their club football together at the same club (Paris Saint-Germain) no doubt helps, as does the having forwards who are smart and quick learners (Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus epitomize this, while Everton slotted in beautifully). Midfield remains a work in progress and while Philippe Coutinho wasn't the shadow we often saw at Barcelona, he didn't necessarily do enough to suggest he ought to be handed the keys to the team.
More broadly, there's a talent issue...maybe. Some of Brazil's most individually gifted players are either older (Dani Alves, Thiago Silva), absent (Neymar) or star-crossed (Coutinho). Others, like Arthur, Alex Sandro and Roberto Firmino, are great at what they do but have specific roles in which they excel. The obvious exceptions are Alisson, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world right now, and Marquinhos, a defender who's been long underrated. Plus, Everton and Gabriel Jesus, who look as if they have another level to which they can go.
Either way, in terms of raw material, Tite is under-resourced compared to past Brazil sides, which may explain why he's had to work so heavily on the tactical cohesion.
Signs of life for Argentina?
Argentina may have Lionel Messi but they also have a raft of concurrent issues, from the manager to the chaos at the FA to being painfully thin in certain positions. A lot can happen in three years, of course, and it's evident that a lot needs to happen if they are to compete in Qatar, but they did offer up a few bright spots.
Juan Foyth, playing right-back, showed he can more than hold his own though his future (you'd imagine) is in the center. Lautaro Martinez was a livewire who showed plenty of grit and personality. Those two will be part of the future, but they'll need help.
Gareca the star of the tournament
Long-haired and craggy-faced with deep set eyes, Ricardo Gareca was already a cult hero in Peru and only cemented his status with the runner-up finish as well as the 3-0 pounding of Chile in the semifinal. He has worked wonders with Peru, a country with tremendous support but highly limited resources in terms of players. The fact that he tends to play front-foot football, and often in situations where it makes more sense to park the bus, only adds to the romantic notions.
Most of all, he radiates pride like few other managers in world football.
"Do I want CONMEBOL to improve? Of course I do," he said after the final. "Do I want Peru to improve? Of course I do. But I also think we need to be aware of who we are as South Americans and the legacy of those who came before us. We don't need to automatically imitate Europe or other continents as a way to improve. We know who we are, we should work on our own style, our own culture."
Tabarez the king of the soundbite
Ultimately, the mantle of South American cult hero, picturesque demigod remains with Oscar Washington Tabarez. "El Maestro" whipped out some of his trademark, brutally (and yeah, to use a horribly overused word) refreshing quotes after his Uruguay team dominated Peru, had three goals disallowed but ultimately fell on penalties.
"They slowed the game down, they put men behind the ball, they played for penalty kicks in the second half, that was all they were interested in," he said. "Do I have a problem with that? No. We would have done exactly the same thing in their position. And, in face, we have done exactly the same thing, many times."
A whole lot of managers could still learn plenty from him.
Japan, Qatar more than hold their own
The two Copa America invitees from Asia acquitted themselves rather well. Japan's decision to send a young, experimental side made sense with three years to go until the World Cup. They were overmatched in the opener against Chile, losing 4-0, but then more than held their own, grabbing draws against Uruguay and Ecuador. Considering they left out the likes of Hiroki Sakai, Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Kagawa and a host of others, that's a good tournament.
The same can be said for the Asian champions, Qatar, arguably in a tougher group. They battled back from an 0-2 deficit to grab a point against Paraguay (and really should have done better) before succumbing only to a late, late goal against Colombia. Against Argentina, they conceded straight away but then came close to equalizing on numerous occasions before conceding a second late on.
The global landscape is changing.