It's been a struggle
Copa craziness: The other big soccer games this weekend are intriguing forArgentina and Brazil
This year’s version of the Copa America—the biennial South American soccer championship—has been long on drama and intrigue, and kinda short on exciting futbol.
The drama comes from the questions that swirl around South America’s two great soccer powers, Brazil and Argentina. Brazil, of course, is hosting the 2014 World Cup, and they’re already feeling tremendous pressure to win on their home turf. That’s partly because of the relatively poor showing they’ve made in the last two World Cups, in which they failed to make the finals both times.
The lesson of this year’s Copa America, and last year’s World Cup, seems to be that the rest of the continent is catching up to Brazil and Argentina. And that’s not a message that will go smoothly in Buenos Aires or São Paulo.
Argentina, on the other hand, is hosting this Copa America, and is feeling intense pressure to win now. South America’s second football power hasn’t won an international competition of any kind since the 1993 Copa America.
Argentina’s drama has an added twist: Lionel Messi, the most celebrated footballer on earth, is Argentine, but is not really accepted as a local by his countrymen. That’s because FC Barcelona, his professional team, carried him off to Catalonia at the tender age of 12. So, unlike Diego Maradona, he didn’t grow up on the mean streets of Buenos Aires, or Rosario (his hometown), but rather in that soccer Hogwarts that is Barcelona’s youth academy. He’s had it too easy in life to really be Argentine.
So he gets blamed for Argentina’s international disappointments, even when he plays well (as he generally does). After Argentina’s 0-0 group-stage draw against Colombia, Messi was whistled (booed) as he left the pitch, possibly for the first time in his life.
Both Argentina and Brazil actually had to win their final group-stage matches in order to move on to the quarterfinals. (Matches are shown on Univision) Both teams looked somewhat better than they had in their first games, but questions remain for each. (This is as good a place as any to mention that Brazil has both a Duck (Pato) and a Goose (Ganso) in their starting eleven.)
In the first game on Saturday, Argentina faces Uruguay, semi-finalist in last year’s World Cup. Per capita, tiny Uruguay must be the world’s greatest soccer nation. Diego Forlan, winner of the Golden Ball (among its many flaws, FIFA is no good at naming trophies) at last year’s World Cup, hasn’t yet scored in this Copa America, but he’s surrounded by plenty of talent.
The two neighboring countries have an intense rivalry—in 29 matches, each has won 13 times, with three draws—and at this point no one would be surprised to see Uruguay beat Argentina.
The other Saturday match pits Colombia against Peru. These countries are not South America soccer royalty, but Colombia has looked very strong so far, and in fact did not allow a goal in the group stage.
One Sunday quarterfinal (of course we’ll all be watching the Women’s World Cup) will match Brazil against Paraguay—a surprising quarterfinalist in South Africa. The other features a very appealing Chile against a surprisingly strong Venezuela. Chile is led by one of the hottest names in European transfer market, Alexis Sanchez (he plays in Italy but Barcelona wants him), and in general the team (also a 2010 quarterfinalist) is on the upswing.
Indeed, the lesson of this year’s Copa America, and last year’s World Cup, seems to be that the rest of the continent is catching up to Brazil and Argentina. And that’s not a message that will go smoothly in Buenos Aires or São Paulo.