The group stage phase of the controversial Copa America in Brazil has concluded. Eight of the 10 teams advance to the knockout phase as the games roll on at empty stadiums across the country.
Hosts and Group A winners Brazil had a lackluster 1-1 draw with Ecuador, while Peru‘s 1-0 win ensured Venezuela‘s exit. Lionel Messi made more history for Group B winners Argentina in a 4-1 victory over eliminated Bolivia, while Uruguay beat Paraguay 1-0. Chile and Colombia sat out this round of fixtures.
ESPN looks back at the action from the oldest international tournament in the world.
The stand out so far
With 20 games to eliminate just two teams, there has been an obvious lack of drama and competitive intensity about the group phase of this Copa America. It would, then, be fatuous to be thinking of a team of the tournament so far, or the outstanding player of the group phase. But there is a strong candidate for the stand out so far — Peru coach Ricardo Gareca.
Five years ago it was in the centenary version of the Copa in the United States that Gareca found his group, and consolidated a team that two years later took Peru to their first World Cup since 1982. In the 2019 Copa, he took that same team all the way to the final. And here they are at the end of the group phase, through in second place to Brazil — even though the way they timidly succumbed to a 4-0 defeat to the hosts says plenty about the paucity of the resources at Gareca’s disposal.
Over these last few years Peru have fielded just one genuinely world class player — captain and centre forward Paolo Guerrero, who misses this tournament as he attempts to recover from a serious knee injury. Gareca has been lucky to come across a replacement of sorts — the mobile, cunning Italian-born striker Gianluca Lapadula, who at the age of 31 has decided to represent the land of his mother’s birth.
It is just as well he has come aboard. Peruvian football is providing Gareca with very little. For the eighth consecutive year, and the 10th in the last 11, no Peruvian side has made it through to the last 16 of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. A few youngsters are tentatively being blooded in the Copa — San Jose Earthquakes left-back Marcos Lopez played a couple of games, midfielder Martin Tavara came off the bench, as has striker and, slightly older at 25, Alex Valera, who showed some promise in the Libertadores. Lapadula aside, though, none of the new intake have yet made any real impression on the national team. Gareca is stuck with the same old same old — and he keeps making it add up to more than the sum of its parts.
On a bad day, it is not easy for this Peru team to compete — the 3-0 defeat at home to Colombia at the start of the month in World Cup qualification is an example, or that 4-0 drubbing by Brazil. But with a little tweak here and plenty of common sense there, in the Copa Gareca’s team beat Colombia and drew with Ecuador — results that seemed very unlikely before the matches, or even at half-time in the case of the Ecuador game.
He tries to keep his team compact — hard to play through without the ball, plenty of passing options when in possession, and trust in the skills of Lapadula on the counter-attack, the dynamism of Andre Carrillo and the occasional flash of talent from Cristian Cueva. It is not a lot. But it has proved enough for Peru to finish second in the group.
How far can they go? Perhaps the key question is whether they can emerge from the competition with confidence renewed. A third of the way through the Qatar 2022 qualifiers they are currently bottom of South America’s table. Gareca will hope that 2021 can be 2016 repeated, and that they can come away from the Copa believing that their well coached, limited resources will be enough to get them to the World Cup.
The great Neymar debate
Pele was not far short of 31 when he retired from international football, having done it all. Neymar will be nearly 31 going into the next World Cup, with it still all to do.
The Paris Saint-Germain star may go on to lift his first Copa America — he was injured in 2019. But he is well aware that for Brazilians, the World Cup is the true measure. Qatar 2022 looks like being the defining moment of his international career.
Coach Tite makes it plain that he builds his side around Neymar — and can point to Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Ecuador as justification.
Neymar was rested for a game that many might have seen as without consequence. It was not for the Ecuadorians, who were playing for their survival in the competition. And neither was it for many of the Brazil players. The likes of Gabriel Barbosa, Lucas Paqueta, Everton Soares and others are by no means assured of a place in the World Cup squad. They wanted to make an impression, and all will be disappointed with what they produced. It just was not the same without Neymar.
And yet, at full strength, Brazil had managed to turn round the previous game against Colombia — and though Neymar took the corner that set up the winning goal, it was not one of his better nights. The only time he has been on the losing side in a Copa game (the penalty shoot elimination to Paraguay in 2011 counts as a draw in the records) was back in 2015, when Brazil were also frustrated by Colombia. Carlos Sanchez performed a magnificent marking job on Neymar, who at the end of the game in an excess of frustration manhandled the referee and picked up a lengthy suspension. Six years later, Wilmar Barrios did a similar job for Colombia, and Neymar’s frustration levels were rising once more. They did not boil over this time — though it would have been interesting to see the consequences had Brazil’s controversial equaliser been ruled out.
The point is that when the pressure was on Neymar was less effective, his performance undermined by petty disputes and complaints. Can — or should — so many hopes be placed on him in the next World Cup? Can Tite manage his star so successfully that he produces his best when it really matters?
If nothing else, the group phase of the Copa showed that these will be key questions in the next World Cup.
And the eliminated sides… what do they carry home?
Venezuela’s attempts to exit the stage with dignity are not mere face saving. Despite their early elimination, coach Jose Peseiro can be proud of what his men produced — because Venezuela were the biggest victims of the coronavirus-affected Copa.
The full strength Venezuela side carry a two-pronged attacking threat. There is the combative centre-forward play of the burly Salomon Rondon. And there are the rapid wingers who flank him. Neither of these weapons were available.
Quarantine restrictions kept Rondon in China. And all of the wingers were ruled out by a COVID surge that forced Venezuela to fly in new players at the last minute. Peseiro was left without attacking options. He quickly organised a five man defensive system in front of outstanding keeper Wuilker Farinez, and looked to live off scraps. In the circumstances the draws against Colombia and Ecuador were heroic, the defeats against Brazil and Peru hardly a disaster.
Bolivia also suffered from COVID, which meant that they could hardly call on their captain and all time top scorer Marcelo Martins Moreno. But coach Cesar Farias also chose to field a team that was not at full strength. This proved fatal in the opening game against Paraguay, when the excellent first-choice keeper Carlos Lampe was rested in favour of the inexperienced Ruben Cordano — and where the teenage Italy-based striker Jaime Cuellar let the side down with an absurd first half red card, helping turn a 1-0 lead into a 3-1 defeat.
It proved the first of four straight losses. Farias can point to the experience gained by youngsters such as centre-back Jairo Quinteros and left-footed support striker Jeyson Chura. He can also point to the results of the last three World Cup qualifiers — a home win sandwiched between two away draws — which gave him a position of relative strength from which to experiment.
The highpoint was the single goal defeat to Chile, where Bolivia had the better of the second half and deserved a draw. The low point came at the end, when Lionel Messi tore the defence to shreds and only an inspired Lampe kept the score down to 4-1.