The Little Guays Win
Uruguay favored over "winless" Paraguay in surprising Copa America soccerchampionship final
UPDATE: Uruguay shut out Paraguay 3-0 to win a record 15th Copa America soccer championship on Sunday.
This has been a surprising Copa America, to say the least.
For the casual observer, who might think that South American soccer begins with Brazil and ends with Argentina, a showdown between those two (former?) giants in the finals of the biennial South American soccer championship seemed preordained, especially since this tournament is being played in Argentina and Brazil is gearing up for its World Cup of 2014.
But the competition has not gone according to script. Instead of Brazil and Argentina, the two “guays," Paraguay and Uruguay, are playing for the championship on Sunday. (It’ll be shown on Univision at 2 p.m. Pregame at 1 p.m.)
Brazil continued the run of dull play they displayed in last year’s World Cup and was eliminated by Paraguay by penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. Reaction back home has been predictably disdainful.
Argentina had more highly regarded players than any other team, including, of course, the greatest player of this era, Lionel Messi. (Messi, by the way, will be playing in Dallas, along with the rest of his brilliant Barcelona teammates, on Aug. 6. President Obama is scheduled to attend the Barcelona-Guadalajara match in Miami on Aug. 4, if the U.S. government is still solvent enough to allow him to travel.)
But, for reasons far beyond my comprehension, Argentina remains unable to assemble and organize a competent national team. They lost in the quarterfinals to Uruguay, on penalty kicks. And Messi will continue to have his patriotism questioned.
So, the big-name guys are out. What does that leave us with in terms of the final? A mixed bag, frankly.
Uruguay has great tradition. They are currently tied with Argentina for most Copa America championships (14), and Uruguayan fans are streaming into Buenos Aires, hoping to break the tie on their much larger neighbor’s home turf. They also have a handful of excellent players and generally play an attractive brand of soccer, one that took them to the World Cup semifinals last year.
Luis Suarez has become one of the world’s most dangerous forwards. Diego Forlan has possibly lost a bit of the form that made him last year’s Golden Ball winner at the World Cup, but he’s adept on set pieces and on setting up Suarez.
Paraguay, on the other hand, has forced itself onto the world stage with a largely no-name cast, and by playing a frankly boring style of soccer. Their coach, Gerardo Martino, is something of a tactical mastermind. He plays the limited hand he’s been dealt very well, but that doesn’t lead to attractive soccer. His teams play defensively, hoping to tie and then win on penalty kicks.
Think I’m exaggerating? Paraguay is in the finals despite not winning a single game. In soccer terms, if you win on penalty kicks, it goes into the books as a tie. So they tied three games in the group stage, but still advanced. They then won their quarter- and semi-final games on kicks. The semi-final against Venezuela ended in general disgrace, as a melee broke out between the teams after the kick-off. In fact, Martino is banned from the final for arguing too much with the referees.
Paraguay plays an ugly but effective game. (They surprised the world by reaching the World Cup quarterfinals last year, where they gave Spain all they wanted.) Martino is from Argentina, and there are some rumbles that the Argentines might abandon their dreams of “playing like Barcelona” and bring try to Martino home and simply start to win.
In any case, I’m afraid that I have to predict a rather dull, low-scoring final. I hope that somebody wins fair and square, and I hope that it’s Uruguay.