A Cup of Nations: COPA 2007
World football’s most illustrious and celebrated team Brazil, with a ruthless performance of great efficiency had overcome its most feared arch-rival Argentina to win the COPA -America for the second time in succession, and this time more emphatically than the 2004 Lima confrontation. This, the 42nd addition, was held in the land of baseball and beauty contestants, Venezuela, the last in the list of nations to hold a COPA finals; the idea for hosting this tournament first came about 20 years earlier. The COPA had briefly been loaned to Colombia in 2001 following victories in 1997 and 1999 for Brazil. It was a bitter pill for Argentina, carrying the burden of 14 years without a trophy, who lost on penalties to a second string Brazil in a memorable 2004 final, but were favourites to win this time against a Brazilian team missing Kaka and Ronaldinho, who asked to be rested. A 4-1 trashing by Brazil at the 2005 Confederations Cup and 3-0 at Arsenal’s new stadium in 2006 followed.
With the need to win – for Argentina – there was no experimenting as happened at previous COPA ‘s of late; no players excused because they needed a holiday, as in case of some Brazilians, as the squad was mostly drawn from the Europe-based contingent. The 64-year-old manager Alfio Basile, between 1991 until 1993, oversaw a 31 match unbeaten run.
South America’s top trophy – in a match very untypical in itself – had once again been captured by a combination of attributes not immediately associated with the Brazil team, namely strength and power, mixed with traditional elements of attacking full-backs and flashes of individual talent. Brazil, also bigger and stronger had huge imposing players, battlers with the look of a basketball team; the extra strength at no cost of speed or skill. Brazil sat back soaked up the pressure and broke with pace on the break as Argentina’s shaky defence was exposed by the sheer athleticism of Brazil’s counter-attacks and constantly played into their hands.
Argentina’s artistry and passing game had been repeatedly blunted by Brazil’s ruggedness and superior physical power; their usual flowing game and best moves continually interrupted by systematic Brazilian fouling in midfield. Brazil gave away a total of 37 free-kicks as they won most of the 50-50 balls – artistry crushed by efficiency.
The purists hoped for an Argie win, but the favourites – beforehand – in sweltering Maracaibo found themselves swept off its feet by a side that had survived an early Juan Roman Riquelme shot (for a quick reply to Brazil’s opener) rifled against the post – evidence it might be Brazil’s afternoon. The samba had stung Argentina by snatching a quick lead in the 4th minute; Julio Baptista’s goal setting them on their way. The long crossfield ball by Elano found Baptista on the left and, as Ayala held off, the player known as ‘the Beast’ advanced menacingly and unleashed a shot into the top right-hand corner. With the temperature at kick-off time around 32 Celsius and the tropical sun still burning, a cagey slow opening had been expected – certainly not end-to-end. Argentina coach Alfio Basile had criticised organisers of the COPA America over the kick-off time in the steamy oil city. The number ten (Riquelme) was close again in the 35th minute but his shot was brilliantly turned away by Brazil goalkeeper Doni. Instead of Robinho, a potent goalscorer at these championships, one could look at the hulking Baptista, the symbol of Brazil’s physical strength from this current set up as the player of the tournament, scoring and assisting in goals. He may not have started had Kaka, the world’s leading player or Ronaldinho, his predecessor answered the call for inclusion. The contest was effectively over when Roberto Ayala, making his 115th appearance inadvertently slid the ball past his keeper and into his own goal from vicious in-swinging cross from Daniel Alves, just on for the injured Elano – five minutes before half-time.
Although Argentina had more possession they struggled to impose their style and Brazil produced the killer punch and ended the contest on 69 minutes. Vagner Love broke down the left and fed Daniel Alves, who scored with a clinical shot into the bottom right-hand corner. A 15th COPA victory was out of reach as Argentina coach Alfio Basile, who won the 1991 and 1993 tournaments in a previous stint, lost a COPA America match for the first time in a run spanning 19 games. Argentina scored 16 goals in 5 games before the final while Brazil lost to Mexico in the group stage and needed a penalty shoot-out to beat Uruguay in the semi-finals.
After only 11 months in charge, and with no previous coaching experience beforehand, former World Cup winning player of 1994 turned coach Dunga had won his first title. He prepared for his first competitive internationals by resisting the temptation to clear out the old, but gave chances to youngsters and those overlooked by predecessors in countries like Ukraine and Russia. Leadership was the main requirements here after replacing Carlos Alberto Parreira. Fiery Dunga took over with Brazil at low ebb after their lacklustre performances at the World Cup the previous year, when they lost to France in the quarter-finals. He stated the team had rescued the self-esteem of their supporters by winning the COPA America. ‘The worker leaves home early in the morning and comes back at late night and whose only satisfaction is when Brazil wins,’ said Dunga. He then paid tribute to his players, who he said had come from adversity to triumph. ‘They are winners, they come from families who financially are not so well off, nobody has given them anything, they’ve worked hard for this and so they deserve it,’ he said. He also warned that Ronaldinho and Kaka, who asked to be rested from the tournament, would have to fight to get their places back in the team. Of future team selections, he said: ‘Obviously, the player who comes is ahead of the player who doesn’t. Players are picked on merit and their capabilities. ‘If a player comes and he does well, how can I take him out of the team?’ Although he was criticised in the earlier stages of the tournament, especially after a 2-0 defeat to Mexico, Dunga said he had nothing to say to his detractors. ‘If my team wins, then I have nothing to explain,’ he said. It had started so horribly wrong for the samba boys with an unexpected 2-0 opening day defeat at the hands of Mexico, just three days after they had lost to USA in the Concacaf Gold Cup final. However, they benefited from dubious refereeing decisions (one of two) given in the group stages when they had looked unlikely to break Chile’s defences. Chile dominated the second half but failed to take its chances and became tired chasing the game, leaving Robinho to grab two more goals (adding to his opener) in the last 10 minutes to give the scoreline a flattering look. Robinho was in the headlines again after a supposed foul when no contact appeared to be made for a penalty award which the forward scored for his fourth tournament goal in 2-0 win against Ecuador.
Robinho, once dubbed the new Pele, had finally been given the chance to lead attack– He had been sidelined by the Ronaldo-Adriano partnership at the 2006 World Cup.
An astonishing sequence of one-sided games followed into the quarter-finals, Brazil one of two nations to crash six goals. This was amidst reports opponents Chile going on a drinking spree and causing damage at the team hotel in Puerto Ordaz; 6-1 was the crushing scoreline with Juan, Baptista, Robinho either side of half-time, Josue and Wagner Love all scoring. Brazil found it harder going against a somewhat superior Uruguay team following a 2-2 draw. Only the fortune of penalties to go in their favour, 5-4 victors ensured a final date with Argentina.
Luck followed them again with a third dubious decision in their favour when keeper Doni 3-4 metres off his line, made the sudden death penalty save kick; in a match halted by a 14 minute floodlight failure. Brazil had failed to defeat Uruguay in 90 minutes since the 3-0 COPA final victory of 1999.
Argentina had played their way through teams en route to the final in Venezuelan capital, and along with Paraguay qualified for the last eight with a game to spare after winning the first two matches. Despite falling behind to USA they ran out comfortable 4-1 winners after taking the lead on the hour. Old habits died-hard as they fell behind again against Colombia only to be gifted an equaliser before ending the game 4-2 victors; not before Hernan Crespo in scoring a penalty for 2-1 pulled a muscle that would keep him out for rest of the finals. He would be sorely missed. With Paraguay cracking in goals, Argentina needed victory to overtake them in the standings; they did it with Javier Mascherano’s first goal for his country. Peru held on up until half-time before a change involving Carlos Tevez for Diego Milito in attack. Argentina swept to a storming 4-0 romp. Mexico too suffered a similar fate despite putting up a fight for long periods in a 3-0 loss. Lionel Messi scored the goal of tournament with a stunning chip over Oswaldo Sanchez.
Colombia, semi-finalists and the last winners besides Brazil, got eliminated in the first round. They arrived with building a new team on the agenda, this with preparation for the World Cup qualifiers in mind. After failure to qualify for 2002 and 2006 new coach Jorge Luis Pinto proclaimed Colombia were going to World Cup. He had various ideas and wanted the team to be dynamic, aggressive and direct. Colombia were none of them as scoring goals was a problem and they were quickly sent packing by Paraguay 5-0, their fate decided in a five minute spell after missing the chance with a penalty kick in the 27th minute; 2-0 down to goals from Roque Santa Cruz either side of half-time they collapsed in the final 10 minutes as Santa completed a treble before Salvador Cabanas grabbed a quick brace. The dream was ended by Argentina 4-2 before a consolation 1-0 win against bottom placed USA, not before Hugo Rodalegga missed a penalty before ending up in goal as Robinson Zapata was sent-off after twice being booked for time-wasting.
Venezuela, the host nation, defeated by Uruguay 4-1 in the quarter-finals, ended its 40 year wait for a second game victory in San Cristobal and progressed to beyond the first stage for the first time; having rather conveniently been drawn in the easiest group alongside Peru, Bolivia and Uruguay. Its last victory in 1967 over Bolivia had been their debut appearance at the COPA. Spearheaded by encouraging results of late, the game in the country had made massive strides.
It would be one of the most ambitious COPA ‘s ever with 9 cities used, three new stadiums built and despite lack of hotels and inadequate transportation system, grounds were usually full. Bolivia had pegged them back for a deserved share of the spoils in the opening game, but its win came in a controversy rigged encounter with Peru 2-0. A sequence of results meant the hosts had qualified before they took to the field against Uruguay who requiring the point and appeared as happy to play out a goalless draw with the hosts. Under Ricardo Paez (who had experienced the dark days of national football), in charge since 2001, Venezuela had made enormous strides, the coach overseeing a transformation; winning a significant number of World Cup qualifiers of recent – won five out of 18, 2002 qualifiers. A 2-0 win in Chile 2001 represented their first ever away win. They had won only two from 1965 to 1998. They played an attractive passing game and were exporting players now.
Until recently they were considered the odd ones in South America, the national sport traditional baseball while other nine nations took fervently to football. Next step was defeating Brazil and Argentina???