The first set of match days of the controversial Copa America have concluded. As Brazil still struggles with coronavirus cases, the on-field action is officially underway at empty stadiums across the country.
Hosts Brazil opened up the tournament with a 3-0 win over a depleted Venezuela side that had to call up 15 emergency players because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Colombia nabbed a 1-0 win over Ecuador, while Chile rallied for a 1-1 draw with Argentina despite Lionel Messi’s stunner. Paraguay beat Bolivia 3-1, and Uruguay and Peru have yet to play in the 10-nation tournament.
ESPN’s Tim Vickery looks back at the action from the first two days at the oldest international tournament in the world.
– Copa America bracket, fixtures schedule
– Why is the Copa back in Brazil? All you need to know
A case of unfair competition?
The Copa America was previously held in a four-year cycle in which it acted as a warm-up to the next set of World Cup qualifiers — in 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. Now, because FIFA want to clear a midyear space for a global club competition, it takes place at the same time as the Euros — which, this year, anyway, looks like a case of unfair competition.
The European Championship has fans in the stadiums, and a feeling — hopefully not premature — that there is something to celebrate with the pandemic under control. No such sentiment is possible in South America. COVID-19 rages on and will soon reach the half-million mark of deaths in Brazil. There will be no fans present, and the pandemic got the tournament off to an embarrassing start in Sunday’s first game. Brazil’s opponents are suffering from an outbreak of COVID-19 — Venezuela could field only three of the starting lineup from last Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier at home to Uruguay, and they had been forced to fly in extra players. Inevitably, they formed a scratch team that emerged with some dignity from a 3-0 defeat. But coming straight after the thriller between the Netherlands and Ukraine, the opening game in the Copa had the feel of a testimonial or a charity encounter.
Then there is the format, with a bizarre group phase that takes more than two weeks and 20 games to eliminate just two of the 10 sides. And on top of that the quality of the pitches leaves something to be desired, especially when compared to the Euros. Argentina were justifiably critical of the playing surface for their match in Rio de Janeiro’s Nilton Santos stadium. So it is, then, a case of unfair competition.
But South American football is nothing if not resilient, and the game between Argentina and Chile was a better watch than the Spain-Sweden match that preceded it.
Have we learnt anything new about the big two?
Probably not, though given the improvised nature of their opponents, it was hard to learn too much about Brazil.
Just as in World Cup qualification, at the moment, Brazil are looking solid and confident, seldom in the slightest danger of conceding and with the individual talent and collective variations to cause plenty of problems. It will be interesting to see how they cope when and if that confidence is shaken in the later stages of the competition.
As for Argentina, they have clearly improved in the two years since their last defeat — to Brazil in the semifinals of the 2019 Copa. But Monday’s 1-1 draw with Chile highlighted frustrating weaknesses as well as strengths. Just as in the two recent World Cup qualifiers — one of them another draw with Chile — they are showing flashes of real promise, passages of play when their circuit of midfield passing looks very impressive. Lionel Messi continued his private duel with Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, this time beating him with a magnificent free kick. But this time he was kept relatively quiet — and even so, Argentina were creating chances. Geovani Lo Celso played a splendid first half.
But then come the problems. Chile made a switch at the break, sending Arturo Vidal further forward to link up with striker Eduardo Vargas. Argentina lost their fluency — they are finding it impossible to sustain their rhythm — and, once more, the defence collapsed. Nico Otamendi is running on borrowed time at centre-back, and alongside him Lucas Martinez Quarta seems off balance too often to be the long-term solution. There are great hopes surrounding Cristian Romero, who is injured, but the evidence on him in the recent World Cup qualifiers was inconclusive. And so Chile found a way, though.
Now pushed to the left, midfielder Erick Pulgar played a wonderful diagonal ball that exposed a gaping hole in the centre of the defence, and Vargas had a shot that was saved by Emiliano Martinez. But Vidal following up was fouled by Nico Tagliafico, who did his best to commit two penalties in the same move. Martinez did wonderfully well to push Vidal’s penalty onto the bar, but Vargas reacted quickly to head home and continue his remarkable relationship with the Copa America.
Once more Argentina had started brightly, taken the lead, and been forced to settle for a draw. Friday’s game against Uruguay looks exceptionally promising — an old local derby well capable of rivalling the England-Scotland clash taking place earlier that day in the Euros.
The best of the rest
The goal that gave Colombia a 1-0 win over Ecuador will live long in the memory. The defensive wall lined up expecting Edwin Cardona to shoot from a free kick. Instead, he worked a clever exchange of short passes with Juan Cuadrado, and then he continued his run into the area. Cuadrado’s chip in the box was neatly nodded across by striker Miguel Borja, and Cardona met it with a cute finish on the volley to beat the keeper.
Cardona is a fascinating, frequently infuriating figure. He is not much of an athlete — milk turns quicker than he does — but he strikes the ball extremely well and has flashes of imagination that can light up a game. His goal against Ecuador won three points for his side and was the highlight of the opening round.