That would be the perfect description to Brazil’s ‘final’ and clinical destruction of fellow South American competitors Uruguay. The continent’s most exuberant, illustrious and colourful nation had cruised to victory at the COPA –America’s 39th gathering, thus casting out the shadow and mystery of the World Cup final debacle a year earlier. World football’s oldest continental championships, held irregularly since 1916, produced a variety of incident, drama and excitement in a period of almost three weeks. The tournament held every 2 years since 1987 was almost 50 years-older than Europe’s own equivalent.
Unsurprisingly, the outstanding players of this tournament were to be Brazilians; the enigmatic Rivaldo and the revered Ronaldo, with able assistance coming from Marcel Amoroso – each playing the biggest roles in the nation retaining a trophy won for the first time outside Brazil only 2 years earlier. Ronaldo had been the ultimate star of that 97 victory culminating in two splendid goals en-route to finishing off the hosts Bolivia. All four victories before that had been achieved on home territory.
Brazil and world football’s most famous current player Ronaldo, along with the future-crowned world and European footballer of the year Rivaldo, jointly shared a total of ten goals. However, it was the contribution of Rivaldo – sent-off against Mexico – that was to stand out for most observers. Barcelona’s superstar would now take over the mantle, lost by Ronaldo as the world’s best player, thus ending previous doubts on his ability in his homeland. It was the skill, engine, character that mesmerized the watching world, indeed everything about him. It would culminate in two final goals that included one exquisite chip with Ronaldo clinically adding a killer third soon after half- time. Revenge had been taken for Brazil’s 1995 penalty shoot-out loss in Montevideo.
Winners of all 6 of its games Brazil went into these championships, held in Paraguay for the first time ever, with a new man of almost a year in-charge, Wanderley Luxembourgo, a fully strength team and as the mile-long favourites. This was partly due to Argentina leaving a lot of their European-based players behind in a tournament where teams fielded weaker teams while concentrating on qualifying for the forthcoming World Cup. Brazil included 8 players from last year’s World Cup squad of 22 men, this minus the goal-getting pair of Romario and Edmundo – whom had troubled the manager in the past with ill-discipline – plus Leonardo whom prematurely ended his career when he was told he would not be the captain. Previous coach Mario Zagallo had been fired for only getting Brazil to the World Cup final and not actually winning it.
Luxembourgo outlined his methods beforehand – discipline, unity, hard work, and professionalism. The known and associated style of Brazilian football was hardly noticeable throughout most of the campaign with the close-marking of opponents and fouling added to the Brazilian repertoire.
All three group games were won, the most clinical a 7-0 destruction of hapless Venezuela in the opening game with Ronaldo 2, Amoroso 2, Emerson, Ronaldinho, and Rivaldo helping themselves to a goal-feast. Mexico (2-1) and Chile (1-0) did not rollover so easily as deadly rivals Argentina were overcome in an eventful quarter-final, but only just as Mexico failed to gain revenge for the group defeat by losing two-zero in a semi-final in which goals came from Amoroso and Rivaldo.
Losing finalists and inexperienced Uruguay with its appearance in the finale exceeded all previous expectation of success. Many of its youngsters were debutantes in what was virtually a B-team for the continents joint most successful nation ever. The priority for the establishment was geared towards qualifying for the 2002 World Cup rather than overtaking Argentina in the record number of championship wins. The new coach, Argentine Daniel Passarella opted to take 17 of the nation’s top men for preparation none of whom would participate at the COPA. In fact the man at the top had little to do with the tournament as Victor Pua took care of team affairs.
Great enthusiasm coupled with a big heart and the famous fighting spirit mixed with some luck had been witnessed in the youngsters march to the final game. It accounted for host Paraguay the victims of a penalty shoot-out defeat following a 1-1 draw that had seen Zalayeta put the nation back on level terms. Chile had been accounted for in the same way by a team that had only qualified out of its group as the second best placed third-team. A single match was won outright at the entire tournament against Ecuador 2-1. Other group games resulted in an opening 1-0 defeat to Colombia before Argentina triumphed 2-0.
Without many of its celebrated and self-excluded stars of the European game – Batistuta, Chamot, Almeyda, and Veron – Argentina looked to champions Boca Juniors for the backbone of the national team. The absentees were alleged to have had injuries with the need for rest while some claimed that they had not been asked; this kind of widespread pull-out was dooming the finals to mediocrity. Only Ortega, Crespo and Redondo – recalled after 5 years in the wilderness – bothered as only 6 players from the World Cup of 98 remained. Preparation was less than ideal with Bielsa able to pick a strong line-up once in his reign in the 1-1 draw with European’s Holland.
The lasting memory of Argentina at these finals would be domestic sensation Martin Palermo’s three amazing penalty failures in the 3-0 loss to Colombia. The three misses were included in a batch of seven missed from eleven awards during regulation time – penalty shoot-outs not included. One wonder’s had the galaxy of stars been available for Marcelo Bielsa’s use that would Brazil, whom had it tough with little to choose, have progressed in the quarter-final duel? Had Ayala’s late penalty not been missed to draw the nations level what could have happened at 2-2; instead the game was lost at 2-1. Victories were achieved against Ecuador (3-1) and Uruguay (2-0).
Given home advantage and the players available at their disposal Paraguay were looked upon as possible winners. A vast amount of experience inherent coupled with promising newcomers made a good case for a third COPA victory. Of the 98 squad, the strongest department, the defence, remained intact with the nation looking for greater firepower. The path to the final looked made after finding themselves grouped in arguably the weakest