PART TWO: A Cup of Nations – COPA 95

PART TWO
A Cup of Nations: Copa 95

The Seventh Tale

South America’s premier tournament – The COPA America – was back for the 38th edition, this in a country Uruguay that had seen victory on each of the six previous occasions that the finals had been held in the country.
Following invitations sent out to two competing guest nations Mexico and The United States of America, twelve nations would compete at a second consecutive tournament. Each group consisted of 4 teams with each winner and runner-up to proceed to the quarter-final stage; the two best third-placed teams to join them.

Defending champions Argentina, with eleven wins (not including the three unofficial wins) was the tournament’s most successful ever nation. They were looking to record a treble of victories in consecutive tournaments. Now under the control of former World Cup winning captain Daniel Passarella, Argentina, minus the great Diego Armando Maradona were still a formidable proposition. Under their new man in charge they had lost only one of seventeen, winning twelve and drawing four. The previous coach Carlos Bilardo had won 27 of 50, losing a mere six and at one stage went 31 games unbeaten. The current boss had been a fearsome player in his day, possessing an iron left-foot. He put his heart into the partnership of his two dynamic front men, the Italian based strikers Gabriel Batistuta and Abel Balbo. Batistuta had a phenomenal goalscoring record of 26 goals in 52 matches which in the 90s was extraordinary at the highest level. Four years ago he was the tournament’s top-goalscorer, hitting six goals on route to victory. He followed that tally two years later with three goals in 93 that included both goals in the explosive ‘final’ victory over Mexico. He was now only five behind Maradona’s all-time record. The modern day team was a mixture of young talent and foreign exports consisting of no long-haired players as the coach laid down the law. Outstanding talents Fernando Redondo and Claudio Caniggia saw themselves left out due to a refusal to cut their long hair.
Brazil, the current world champions and favourites had not won the COPA since 1989 on home soil. The occasion was one of four times they had won the tournament, all of which were on its home territory. The team had amassed a fine record since its last defeat two years earlier in Bolivia, a World Cup qualifier 2-0. The omens for success had been good following a recent treble of victories in a mini-tournament in England; easily disposing of the hosts, Japan and Sweden – defeated by the same World Cup scoreline a year earlier. New stars had emerged and been unearthed from this tournament; Ronaldo, Juninho and Roberto Carlos joining the galaxy of stars already present. However, its two biggest stars of the last World Cup were absent, Romario through injury while Bebeto saw himself dropped after he had chosen to play for his club instead of appearing at the recent Umbro Cup. Brazil was now led by Mario Zagallo, assistant at the 94 World Cup and in his third spell as coach, this while Japan-bound Dunga remained as captain. Brazil, not always well represented at these finals, placed its hopes in their rich depth of forward talent. One to look for was Edmundo, known as ‘The Animal’ a talented player who argued with TV crews, linesmen, teammates, opponents and everybody else.
Uruguay, one of the most successful cup teams with 10 wins (not including three unofficial) were looking to re-establish themselves on the world stage. This following its fall from grace in the 90s, past glories to remain a distant memory as recession was to hit this small nation’s football. Its last victories had been in 83 and 87. In 89 they were runners-up in 91 also-rans before being quarter-finalists in 93. Missing the 94 World Cup was a heavy blow for the country, especially since their best had not been witnessed at the 86 and 90 finals. Performances were remembered more for their negativity and brutality with the rugged Uruguayans letting the physical get the better of the skill. Coach Nunez was to change that image, re-moulding them into a tough but fair team with hardworking players with world-class firepower. Victory was imperative for the nation’s resurgence in soccer.
After flopping at America 94, Colombia was in need of a good performance. Only nine of the squad kept their places as mass changes occurred throughout the ranks. Surviving the clear-out were the so-called ‘UNTOUCHABLES’ led by twice South American footballer of the year Carlos Valderrama; of the sponge cake hairstyle that made him one of the most distinguishable and recognised players in football. Leonel Alvarez was to appear at his fifth COPA while Rene Higuita, after missing the World Cup returned as the number one keeper. Involvement in the delivery of a ransom note ended with him doing a stint in the slammer. He was greatly remembered for his antics and a catastrophic mistake made in Naples 1990. His loss of possession to Roger Mills at a crucial moment was to allow the Cameroon striker to run through and score the clinching killer goal. Faustino Asprilla, another of the major disappointments at America 94, also took his place. There had been reported interest from English club Leeds United. Rounding off this five-man elite group was Freddy Rincon who had just endured a lacklustre season in Italy.
Famed for their enthusiastic run leading up to the 94 World Cup finals, Bolivia looked for an improvement on an average tournament. Top-star Marco Etcheverry was to appear for his country after only the briefest of appearances in America. Another man also present and within the same mould, Erwin Sanchez, had been Bolivia’s most outstanding performer at the 94 finals. They stated that they would not be here just to make up the numbers.
Twice winner of the 1953 and 1979 tournaments Paraguay, last seen on the big stage at Mexico 86, were looking more towards the World Cup qualifiers for France 98. Its fans looked for a vastly improved performance on the disappointments of matches at COPA 93 and World Cup qualifiers; missing a chance of a play-off with Australia by one point before getting smashed by host Ecuador 3-0 in a COPA quarter-final.
Guest nation Mexico came as the 93 runners-up and as the only side to still have the same manager in this 95 campaign. The Mexicans with a population of some 80,000,000 people were a nation of passionate, volatile and fanatical football lovers. They came to these finals with virtually the same squad that had participated at the American World Cup finals. Most notably there was Luis Garcia, a player that had put pay to the hopes of many a side, and Jorge Campos. Mexico’s greatest ever player Hugo Sanchez, due to differences with the coach, was to take no part.
Other guest nation America, making its second appearance, came with the intention of enhancing its reputation. They were a much stronger outfit than of two years ago when they failed to win a game. The team, not blessed with the individual brilliance of other nations, relied on teamwork, spirit, organisation, fitness, physical strength and a strong determination. Seen at length at the last World Cup, when sides found them difficult to play against, one wondered how far this spirit and determination could take them. Following victory at the US cup with wins over Mexico, Nigeria and a draw with Colombia they arrived full of confidence. After having previously moulded its team on stout defence that left little room for invention upfield, a more attacking philosophy now seemed to have been introduced; under the guidance of caretaker coach Paul Sampson.
Apart from finishing third in 1991, Chile had made little impression at recent COPA tournaments. Its best finish was as runners-up to Uruguay in 1987. The side was built upon the Cola-Cola side with Azkergorta who guided Bolivia to the 94 World Cup finals the man in charge. Their star man Ivan Zamarano – after making it big abroad and scoring goals in Spain for Real Madrid – at his own request had asked to be left out. It was a decision to question whether or not he had forgotten his roots? Chile’s record this year had not been so bad.
After its World Cup appearances of 1978 and 1982, Peru, heavily in the process of rebuilding, had disappeared from the world spotlight. They had been surprise winners of its 93 qualifying group ahead of Brazil before falling to Mexico in a quarter-final tie.
Fourth as the hosts of 1993 Ecuador were led by Colombia’s coach of 94 Francisco Maturana. Its form of recent had been very poor, thrashed by Japan 3-0 before losing to Scotland. They would need to produce an almighty effort to improve on its performance of two years earlier.
Rounding up the list was to be Venezuela, truly among the dead ranks of soccer with one of the worst records in world soccer. It was the one and only country in the region that had NO football pedigree, baseball the number one sport. A game with these bottom-of-the-table specialists guaranteed goals. The 90s had produced a single victory, winning a mere 6 games in a 20-year period that included one win (a 1967 3-0 win over Bolivia) in 31 COPA matches, losing 24, drawing six. Results were expected to go no different at these finals.

In fact the tournament’s opening tie was to pit these no hopers against the host nation Uruguay. Nothing but a comfortable victory was demanded from an expectant home crowd. The game seemed set for Uruguay as did their passage towards the final. For the COPA record Uruguay had chalked up 3 wins with Venezuela’s best a 2-2 draw coming at the last finals. It had been one of their better tournaments, coming back from 3-0 down against the United States to draw 3-3. The only blemish had been a shattering 6-1 defeat at the hands of hosts Ecuador. Included for the hosts were two survivors from their last COPA victory of 1987; Enzo Francescolli and Pablo Bengoechea. An injury to the knee was thought to be the reason why Ruben Sosa was not to take his place within the starting line-up. Venezuela, far less experienced, included the lesser-known names of world football that included 1993 COPA top marksman Jose Luis Dolgetta.
In the full grip of a Uruguayan winter players wore gloves in frosty temperatures in a stadium not completely full. In order to settle the nerves of its fans Uruguay sought the early breakthrough. The onslaught was to really set the Montevideo crowd alight in total one-way traffic, no respite given to the visitors. Enzo Francescolli headed narrowly over as Venezuela, only three minutes later, barely survived again after Miranda gave the ball away. Slipping through the middle Marcel Otero, only 10-yards-out, dragged an effort away from goal. The pressure mounted with a reflex save to deny the fine drive from Bengochea. Finally and rather expectedly a breakthrough arrived, Venezuela’s defence punished after failing to come out in unity with Daniel Fonseca to touch the ball past the helpless keeper. Bad defending from a corner almost presented Francescolli, allowed in getting free from his marker at the near post, a second, but he failed to direct his effort into the net. Uruguay’s captain had just seen his free-kick take a most wicked deflection, the ball to spin wide and almost fool the keeper. Constantly looking to get high balls into the Venezuelan defence Uruguay had certainly done their homework on the weaknesses of the opposition. In the current circumstances 1-0 was not so bad for Venezuela, well that was until Gustavo Poyet rose above the out of sorts keeper who claimed to being impeded. Using his head, Marcelo Otero was left to firmly plant the ball into the net for 2-0. Just earlier a delay in the release of his effort meant he failed miserably to extend his nation’s lead. In pursuit of the flick on Poyet then saw his diving header fall just the wrong side of the post with Venezuela’s defence soon left looking at one another when Otero, left with a free header 6-yards-out, saw his downward effort narrowly miss its target. Even at this stage Otero, a key player in Penarol’s success last year, should have had a hat-trick. Venezuela, out of depth, out of sorts in defence and punchless in attack did not know where a goal was coming from. Their best move did not arrive until the 43rd minute, this after having its best spell during the previous 10 minutes, the hosts to slightly go off the boil.
For Uruguay, certainly three steps higher in class, adding to their tally looked a mere formality. It was to almost happen sooner than expected in the early seconds of the restart after yet again poor marking on the Venezuelan back post. Francescolli’s low and hard shot at second attempt was pushed out as it looked to creep just inside. Most of the reasonably satisfied 50,000 crowd looked forward to a flood of goals. Venezuela then struck back, totally out of context of anything produced by the visitors. The ball was worked upfield to Dolgetta whom had hardly touched the ball. He superbly spun off the defender before hitting a low effort past a keeper (Alves) that had not made a save let alone touch the ball. What had looked nothing than a mere stroll was getting the crowd to wonder as a new zest and hope was given to Venezuela. Unimaginable to the visitors was that the impossible was becoming a distinct possibility as the host now looked rather uncomfortable. A lot of its play was channelled through Gerson Diaz and veteran stopper Gonzalez whom had come on as a substitute after the conceding of a second goal; he was everywhere, right back, left midfield and centre. Everything about them had improved, especially alertness within its defence. Typified when Carlos Garcia made an important block when the Uruguayan opponent on goal seemed uncertain on which foot to shot with, it would ultimately slow him down. At a time when Venezuela looked its most threatening was one of its stars Rivas Stalin to leave the field; following a second yellow card offence. He had also been dismissed in a 1993 contest with United States and would be found guilty of catching Fonseca, who during the match had been forced off the field several times. It did not improve as they saw themselves left momentarily down to 9 men with Abu Valbuena to take a nasty blow on the face after a misunderstanding with his own keeper Dudamel; unconvincing in collecting a ball that was surely his. Venezuela’s temporary flirtation looked at an end as the hosts were given the break it needed following the award of a suspect penalty. Enzo Francescolli went down body-to-body with the defender – showing recklessness in his challenge – as he seemingly had nowhere to go. The captain picked himself up to settle the nerves of a nation and restore the two-goal margin. Fonseca, with the drive over, then failed to take advantage of Tortolero’s mess in dealing with the situation. Venezuelan confidence looked to have taken a great knock by the conceding of a third goal and Hector Rivas – mentor of 87 and 89 – was brought on to bolster the defence. He had built his reputation as a kind of free-kick specialist. Now seemingly over their purple spell Uruguay looked to consolidate its position with Fonseca’s bullet header to force Dudamel into a fine reflex save. Ruben Sosa, excluded from the opening, was then brought on to add greater dimension to the attacks. He then supplied Gustavo Poyet, who finished with a diving header, with a killer fourth – after no-show defending from Venezuela. There was even a chance for another, Dorta to side-foot an attempt 6-yards-out amazingly wide. But an emphatic 4-1 victory was more than satisfactory for the host nation.

Mexico’s clash with Paraguay brought back the memories of the violent 1986 World Cup clash of the Azteca. The fixture was a game full of dramatics in which some 77 fouls were committed, the official giving only half of those he saw. The host nation took the lead through Hugo Sanchez before Julio Romero equalised very late on for the visitors. However the opportunity to win the contest for Mexico came up with a last minute penalty-kick award. Sanchez saw his attempt saved by a keeper nicknamed the Cat, Fernandez. So often the hero, the striker was to become the rat on this occasion.
Despite being dodged by a poor recent record of one win in five, Mexico were expected very much to win against a team that had scored just five times in nine outings.
The first piece of excitement saw Jorge Campos, one of the two extrovert keepers at these finals, almost undone by an outrageous attempt that was to sail narrowly over the bar. Mexico hit back with the Paraguayan keeper Battaglia called into action, pushing out an effort from Diaz whom had beaten the offside trap. Perhaps he could have taken the ball further as Ambres, ever present in Mexico’s 94 World Cup campaign, soon saw his fierce free-kick diverted by his own man; just as it looked like going-in. Opponents Paraguay were to get even closer, Jose Cardoza 2-yards-out to unbelievably fail and hit the target when all it needed was the slightest of touches; his failure to keep an eye on the ball at the last moment proving costly. It was Cardoza’s again, a free header deflected onto the crossbar by Campos with Samaniego unable to direct the follow up into the net. It was yet another great escape for Mexico now forced into defending so deep within its own trenches. Somewhat surprisingly Mexico, after absorbing so much pressure, went in front in first-half injury time. Rodrugez pulled the ball back for Luis Garcia, who after steeping over the challenge, steered the ball home. Paraguay almost got an instant reply through that man Cardoza, pursuing a flick forward, his first time shot to fly over.
After the restart Paraguay, more than often frustrated by the raised flag for offside, continued its chase to pull the game back. Villamayor, after skilfully losing his marker, and only a mere 7-yards-out drove wide of his target whilst Cardoza’s courage would then desert him. He became more concerned by the possibility of being clattered by the keeper rather than finishing off the swung-in cross from the left. Samaniego on the far post 6-yards-out did no better, hitting the side netting, as not for the first time the Mexico defence looked unsure. It would need assistance from a comedy of Mexican errors for Paraguay’s deserved equaliser. The deflection saw the ball spin past Campos with the defenders attempted clearance to bounce off his own man enabling Cardoza to finally score from a clever back-heel. Bernal’s attempt at regaining Mexico lead saw the ball fiercely struck on goal, the shot proving too hot to handle for Battaglia. But luckily for him the ball was to fall the correct side of the post. As Mexico’s threat waned a second Paraguayan goal looked the ever more likely, and so it was prove with Samaniego for a fine finish to calmly touch the ball past a committed keeper. Could the one-paced Mexicans come back still? They looked less likely to score than at any time in this period with Paraguay to almost steal a third with the outstretched leg of Cardoza to just fail in making a connection to a cross from substitute Campos. With a bit more pace on the ball and an earlier release a goal may possibly have resulted for the striker, whom had expertly spun off his marker and was staking a good claim for a place in the starting line-up. His header would then narrowly fall the wrong side of the post as Bernal’s rasping last minute drive was to be his nation’s last stance. Lacking any real confidence and desire Mexico never deserved even a point let alone the win and on this form even disposing Venezuela could prove difficult. They paid the price for having clearly underestimated the Paraguayans.

Montevideo saw the winners of the group’s opening ties, hosts Uruguay and Paraguay, line-up in search of the win that would take them into the next phase.
Thirteen-time winner Uruguay, whom had steamrolled past chopping blocks Venezuela, knew Paraguay would prove much sterner opposition. In 21 ties the hosts led by eleven to six, the other four contests resulting in draws. Daniel Fonseca continued his partnership with Enzo Francescolli and Marcelo Otero meaning no starting place for Ruben Sosa – again. Unhappy with his delivery coach Nunez replaced Pablo Bengoechea with Dorta; this while Paraguay’s Samaniego saw his place go to Baez.
Typically it was to be the host nation to mount the early pressure in what was a disjointed opening lacking any real quality or incident. Thankfully there was a player called Enzo Francescolli who with a first effort on goal made the breakthrough; starting before applying the finish to the move. In a crowded box he managed to spin away from the defender before finishing with a low drive across the keeper and into the far corner. Perhaps this would sting dull Paraguay into making some kind of a significant response? Shapeless within its formation they lacked the attacking ambition as service to the front-men was non-existent; its players finding themselves closed down quickly by the hosts. But they had a chance to respond with potentially their most dangerous moment to arrive on 32 minutes, following the swift break on the right through Baez in a tremendous amount of space. A great situation arose with men piling in wait but he somehow comically, after losing his footing, tumbled to the floor. The incident owed a lot to the terrible surface. Uruguay’s best moments appeared predictably with the involvement of Enzo Francescolli. His pass pulled back for Otero, hitting a cross-shot, forced Diaz into a fingertip save that turned the ball around the post.
Two minutes into the restart Francescolli saw a sizzling effort wiz over the bar, the ball skimming the head of a Paraguayan. The ball would surely have gone in had it not made contact. Two-yards-out and from the acutest of angles, Fonseca, after getting away from his man, saw his power drive flash across past the other post. The striker (Fonseca) then showing great pace on the right got in another dangerous effort on goal, yet again from another acute angle. This was despite being under pressure and with no supporting options. Paraguay were not getting a look in as the host’s turned on the style, its keeper Alves left a virtual spectator. Ruben Sosa, not in the usual situation of having to play for his place, helped increase Uruguay’s pace and the tempo; this after making an entrance as a substitute.
He combined with Fonseca who came close with his low effort. Three minutes later Fonseca was stretched-off after he turned on his ankle – and did not return. Through Gamarra was Paraguay to almost steal in and grab an undeserved equaliser, the header to hit the top of the bar. The visitor would suddenly look its most threatening as Uruguay, now struggled to hold onto its slender lead; its defenders to start suffering from a loss of concentration. A Uruguay attack now devoid of ideas did not help the cause, now without Francescolli as well the already departed Fonseca. Would failure to extend on its early dominance prove costly for the hosts? Samniego, a goalscorer against Mexico, but mysteriously omitted from the starting line-up was inches away from an equalising connection on goal. His introduction had improved on his teams depressing first-half statistics of no shots, no ideas or prospects. However, it was the hosts who were to almost have the final say with Ayala’s faint touch 4-yards-out preventing the ball from landing on the head of the prowling Ruben Sosa. Uruguay, though unconvincing, had reached the next phase.

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