Thursday, July 21, 2011
Hailing the underdogs
Sam Kelly, Argentina
After all the surprises, after the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the big boys, and after that extraordinary quarter-final round when not one of the favourites got through, it was about time this Copa America settled a bit and gave us a couple of games that turned out as expected. An unfussy win for Uruguay, and qualification with yet another draw for Paraguay; Tuesday's and Wednesday's semi-finals went rather more to form than a lot of the tournament that went before them.
It was almost refreshing, after the spectacular table-turning in the quarters, to see both favourites go through. I say 'almost', because I'm possibly the only journalist I know who's been covering this tournament who honestly would have loved a Peru v Venezuela final. All the same there was satisfaction in watching two semi-finals and knowing that whoever won, we'd end up with a final line-up that absolutely no-one would have predicted prior to the tournament kicking off.
That fact, it must be said, helped me get through what were in truth two fairly pedestrian matches. Okay, Uruguay's 2-0 win over Peru wasn't that bad, but by the end of Paraguay's fifth successive draw (and second successive penalty shootout win) in this tournament on Wednesday night, the high points of the previous evening's match had been well and truly forgotten. Paraguay have decent forwards, and don't play an especially defensive game, so the fact they so frequently struggle to outscore their opponents is a bit puzzling.
Venezuela, by contrast, have no really heralded players, but press all over the pitch and counter-attack at pace, and their reward has been a first ever Copa America semi-final, only four years after their first ever quarter-final (and that came in a tournament they hosted). With Tomas Rincon - suspended for the semi - acting as the cornerstone of their team, they've shown throughout this competition that they are emphatically no longer the whipping boys of South American football, casting off a tag they held as recently as a few years ago.
The match was marred afterwards by an ugly brawl as, in the midst of Paraguay's celebrations at winning the penalty shootout, a few Venezuelan players took exception to the attitude shown by Paraguay's Argentinian-born midfielder Nestor Ortigoza, who'd had a few words with a number of his opponents during extra-time. It spoiled a match which had, by and large, been played in the right spirit in terms of respect for opponents, if not the quality of the football on offer.
All the same, both losing semi-finalists can be proud of their showings in this Copa. Venezuela have never hit any high points football-wise before, while Peru's were decades ago. As recently as the last World Cup cycle, Peru were in danger of being thrown out of FIFA, and finished the 2010 World Cup qualifiers rock bottom of the continental table, winning only three matches. Both, however, picked up victories in reaching the semis - something finalists Paraguay, as I've mentioned, failed to do.
Uruguay's win over Peru on Tuesday still showed a gulf in class, all the same. Uruguay's style isn't as freewheeling as Group C rivals Chile, but they've kept together the nucleus of the side that did so well at last year's World Cup, and the stability and team ethos that has given them has proved crucial. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and that's why, for instance, a key figure such as Edinson Cavani was not ultimately missed when manager Oscar Tabarez - who also deserves enormous credit for having taken the team to such heights in the last couple of years - decided not to risk him in the semi after a twisted knee in the quarter-final.
Peru put up spirited resistance, but Uruguay's patience, craft and experience ultimately showed, with Luis Suarez bagging two well-taken goals in quick succession early in the second half to settle the match. Of all the 'shock' teams in this Copa, Uruguay have been the least surprising. Most predicted an Argentina v Brazil final, but if asked to name the team who stood the best chance of breaking the duopoly, would probably have gone for the side that reached the semi-finals in South Africa 2010. After travelling last year to Montevideo to watch that semi for ESPNsoccernet, I wrote that Uruguay's good World Cup could, if they kept the momentum, translate to an impressive Copa America a year on, and so it has proved.
Paraguay have been more enigmatic, and although they've reached their first final since they won the title in 1979, it's impossible to escape the impression that they're better at frustrating opponents than they are at taking the game to them. They might have seemed unlucky at times against Venezuela in attack, but don't forget Venezuela had a perfectly legitimate goal chalked off for a frankly bizarre offside call in the first half. Other than that moment of excitement, though, it was a match in stark contrast to the previous time these sides met, in their final group game, when two stoppage time goals for Venezuela allowed them to claim a 3-3 draw.
Uruguay v Paraguay will be Sunday's final in the Estadio Monumental then, and I'll be looking forward to that here on ESPNsoccernet in a couple of days' time, but for now I want to salute the achievements of the two vanquished semi-finalists, because both deserve it. The Copa this year hasn't had a surplus of great matches, but it has been an interesting one, thanks in large part to the courage of the supposedly smaller nations.
Prior to this tournament, Venezuela had won only two matches ever in the Copa America. They've now doubled that total, and will have a chance to claim a fifth win in the third-place play-off on Saturday. Those matches are so often pointless, but this time round one can't help feel that both sides really have earned it. They've given as much as anyone to this tournament.
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