Wednesday 7 December 2016

Scandal and intrigue keep eyes of the world on Copa America

Tournament rich with narrative ahead of the knockout stages, says Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Neymar confronts Colombia players during Brazil's defeat, before being sent off
Neymar confronts Colombia players during Brazil's defeat, before being sent off

There is nothing quite so effective at removing stains of ignominy as victory. Chile's game against Bolivia began with Arturo Vidal's name being cheered by the 45,000 fans at the Estadio Nacional on Friday, a clear message of support after he was charged with drink-driving.

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It ended with Chile winning 5-0 after a display of exhilarating football and, to the local media at least, questions about whether Vidal should have been allowed to play on fading before the thought that this Chile squad is probably better equipped than any other in the country's history to win the Copa America. A wait that began in the very first continental tournament in 1916 may be about to come to an end.

Yet the expediency of Chile's football federation, coach Jorge Sampaoli and even Alexis Sanchez, who defended Vidal before Friday's game, has provoked consternation. Former national team striker turned politician Leonardo Veliz articulated what many Chileans are saying. "We are getting used to people committing wrong in all fields, above all in politics and football," he said. "In the end, they try to justify it by giving excuses as if nothing has happened."

The issue of Vidal and the tension between those who take a moral stand and those who are simply desperate for Chile to win a trophy is only one strand of intrigue in what has been an extraordinary start to the Copa America. Major tournaments tend to be defined less by the quality of their football than by the narratives they generate - as demonstrated by the nostalgia for the 25th anniversary of Italia 90, a World Cup that yielded little good football and remains the lowest scoring in history - and this is a Copa already rich with stories.

Chile's dilemma over Vidal is by far the most serious, but the Juventus midfielder is not the only big star to have transgressed. Neymar's red card for butting Jeison Murillo after the final whistle of Wednesday's defeat to Colombia, combined with his second yellow card of the tournament and a volley of abuse aimed at the referee in the tunnel, earned him a four-game ban, ending his tournament.

It may be that in the absence of their overwhelming star, other Brazil forwards are liberated, but so far Dunga's side have looked shapeless and staggeringly dependent on Neymar. The pressure he was under as a result at least in part explains Neymar's petulance and volatility.

Many have protested that Neymar's punishment seems harsh beside the free pass Chile effectively handed Vidal, but the two issues are not directly comparable. Vidal's offence may seem clear-cut, but is not yet proven and, besides, an alleged driving offence does not fall under Conmebol jurisdiction.

Argentina's collapse in their first group game, throwing away a 2-0 lead to draw with Paraguay, reawakened all their doubts. Lionel Messi has spoken of the "obligation" of this generation to end Argentina's 22-year trophy drought, to turn the five under 20 World Cups they won between 1995 and 2007 into silverware at senior level. Their drought is shorter than Chile's, but no less keenly felt. On a personal level, there is a sense that Messi needs to consecrate his genius with international success.

The performance against Uruguay, although it resulted in a win, was fraught, a side battling with its own awareness of history - and also with the ever-knotty issue of Carlos Tevez, whose popularity, political clout and tendency to sulk mean his omission from the starting line-up always creates tension.

Colombia are also wrestling with a striker. Radamel Falcao became the country's top scorer in the final friendly before the Copa, but he struggled in the defeat by Venezuela and the win over Brazil. It is not just that his acceleration has deserted him; his limitations unbalance the side tactically. Again the drama is in the dilemma: does Jose Pekerman jettison a player who was an icon for so long, who was so key in World Cup qualifying 18 months ago?

The performances of Venezuela and Bolivia have been one of the key subplots, their development an emphatic vindication of Conmebol's decision to stage World Cup qualifying as a huge round-robin, with every nation playing every other home and away, something that has guaranteed the traditional minnows the income and experience playing the elite brings.

Bolivia won their first competitive game away from home for 20 years by beating Ecuador and, despite the 5-0 defeat to the hosts, made it to the quarter-finals for the first time since 1997, while Venezuela will reach the knockouts for the third tournament in a row if they beat Brazil today. With Paraguay and Peru also performing above expectations, no side won their first two games, meaning every game in the group stage mattered.

Controversy, scandal, intrigue, big names doing stupid things, stars grappling with their own shortcomings, the minnows playing to their maximum and the big sides flawed, but still there, still scrabbling towards greatness. The knockout phase could hardly have been set up better.

Observer

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