Ever since I found out that Brazil was to host both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, I had planned to accommodate the two events into my personal and professional life at whatever cost. I’d made it to the football tournament, and had a whale of a time, and it would only make my thirst to attend more sporting spectacles the greater.
Now, in my life prior to 2014, I was hardly an events junkie; I can count on one hand the number of music concerts I’ve been to, and unless you consider watching Rochdale AFC a box office performance, then I’d never really been and done the whole massive event thing. So, having loved Brazil 2014, and already in love with South America, it just seemed natural that I’d schedule my 2015 life around the Copa America in Chile. Back at Valter’s house/hostel in Rio, I’d bumped into a family of Chileans, who were ever so insistent about going over to Santiago to experience their country that the possibility of going became fact.
So off I went to the so-called longest country in the world a few days before the tournament started in early June, ready to see some of the biggest South American superstars in action.
Thanks in no small part to Daniel, one of the Chileans I’d met in Rio, and no thanks at all to repeated rejections of my debit card on the Chilean ticket platform, I’d managed to get hold of a series of tickets at very reasonable prices; approximately £15 per game if I’m not mistaken as part of an abono, or mini venue deal.
Upon arriving in a misty Santiago tentatively on the verge of winter, I dropped my bags at Daniel’s and off we immediately popped off to Rancagua to see the national team in action against El Salvador. Three hours later, and there we were in a rather small stadium that didn’t really feel like an international football venue, what with an athletics track circling its perimeter and three stands being uncovered.
Anyway, and to the game, anyone who has noticed Chile’s rise first under Marcelo Bielsa and now Jorge Sampaoli will know that the Argentine coaches have a very consistent team selection and system which certainly accentuates the value in playing players in their correct positions and having a definite strategy, rather than just sending the team out to play, a point many Brazilian football fans would tend to agree with in recent times. The likes of Gonzalo Jara, released by second-tier Nottingham Forest, and Eduardo Vargas and Mauricio Isla, who ‘flopped’ at relegated QPR fit into the Chilean team seamlessly and are part of a very well-drilled eleven that are perhaps best described as ‘relentless’.
As far as I can gauge, their game is based on pressing intensively when the opposition is in possession, and where possible, hitting teams on a subsequent lightning counter-attack. However, whereas this style works well against sides better on paper, such as Spain in World Cup 2014, other teams have got wise to it and are happy to let Chile have possession and impose themselves. When this happens, it would appear that they keep the ball for sustained periods and are not even bothered about sending the ball all the way back to Gary Medel, the five and a half-foot centre half who effectively operates as sweeper. Yet from one moment to the next, whether it be via a killer-pass from the majestic Jorge Valdivia, or a swift turn of pace from Alexis Sanchez, they up the tempo out of nowhere and bomb forward, often having both full backs in the opposition box. And if they lose the ball, they don’t lose their shape, militarily reforming to hunt the ball back down. All a result of discipline and training ground drills, I’d say. And of course, a massive hunger and desire to win, something Forest and Rangers supporters may have sensed a lack of during aforementioned players spells at their clubs.
Onto the game, and the home side didn’t put any of the above into practice really. They certainly had more possession but didn’t seem overly fussed about penetrating the El Salvador defences, who had evidently come for a stalemate. Perhaps they wished to avoid injury on the eve of the Copa, and given the first eleven for the tournament opener was pretty much decided way in advance, maybe they didn’t feel such a need to impress. Valdivia stood out for his wiggling ponytail and occasional flashes of skill, though he is very right-footed. Sanchez missed a few half-chances he should have buried, and the only other player who stood out was David Pizarro, the 35-year-old Fiorentina midfielder, who came off the bench. ‘Watch out for him,’ Daniel warned me, and I was not to be disappointed. Super technique, never lost the ball once, always calm in possession, assuredly played either the short or long pass. He’d spent the previous decade in international retirement, claiming that the set-up was unprofessional and a waste of time and had been persuaded back into the national fold by Sampaoli. As it transpired, Chile came out 1-0 winners courtesy of a Valdivia tap-in from close range. Not the most positive way to roll into a tournament on home soil.
The Copa kicked off the following Thursday in Santiago as Chile took on Ecuador. I accompanied it via a barbecue, beer and wine and everyone I watched it with agreed that Chile needed to improve. They hadn’t played well, but skanked a win off the back of a dubious penalty won and converted by Arturo Vidal (more on him later) and a late goal by Vargas to add gloss to the result. Elsewhere in the first phase, goals weren’t exactly flying in in the first wave of matches, perhaps due to the fact that the third-placed team out of four qualifies in two of the three groups – watch out Euro 2016! Caution ahead of ambition methinks. In the end, most of the goals of the first phase came from games involving Chile, after a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw with Mexico and 5-0 hammering of already-qualified Bolivia.
Moving away from talking about the Chile team for a moment, I attended three games in the group stages and here is how they went:
- Brazil vs Colombia (Estadio Monumental, Santiago)
As part of the venue deal ticket I had acquired, I got to see two games at the Monumental, domestic home to Colo Colo, and one of two locations to play host to games in the capital, as well as the National Stadium. The first of these games was a repeat of the quarter-final from World Cup 2014 where Brazil had bullied Colombia and beaten them 2-1. If there was any way to stop Colombians moaning about the offside Yepes goal that never was, then it was by beating the Brazilians here in their second group match. As with many teams on the continent, Colombia had a poor competitive record against Brazil, yet vastly outnumbered their yellow-clad counterparts in the stadium about 80% to 20%. Having waited 16 years between 1998 and 2014 to go to a World Cup, it seems the Colombians have gone football mad now that they actually have a decent team. Fans were mixed, a lot of women and children were in attendance and there was friendly banter between rival supporters. I donned the Colombian colours and proudly wore my newly-acquired yellow, red and blue jester hat until people behind me complained that it was blocking their view.
As regards the match, it was an attritional affair, to be expected given that Dunga had been reappointed Brazil coach, but it wasn’t short of controversy. Colombia scored a scrappy goal from a set piece as the first half came to a close, shortly followed by Neymar being yellow-carded for scoring with his hand in a goalmouth scramble. Talking of Neymar, his quality is certainly there to see and he had an immaculate first touch, but Colombia seemed happy to allow him possession closer to the halfway line before snapping at him in packs if he got in and around the box. The Barcelona forward grew frustrated as the game went on and was red-carded as the game ended 1-0 for booting the ball at a Pablo Armero in mid-celebration after the final whistle had gone, meaning he’d miss the rest of the tournament due to an extended ban for violent conduct.
Falcao was captain for Colombia’s campaign, a vote of confidence from coach Jose Pekerman after his poor goals return for Manchester United, but such was his performance lacking that even Colombians who saw him as God before that knee injury while playing for Monaco were calling for him to be substituted. It’s rather sad to see such a fall in grace for a footballer who at one time was one of the deadliest strikers in the world. His confidence seemed shot, his first touch not up to scratch and he showed a distinct lack of composure when in good positions. And all that support I gave to him on here…
The match wasn’t the greatest in terms of quality, but the Colombian masses weren’t complaining, especially as the win was a must after losing to neighbours Venezuela in their first match. As the atmosphere goes, it wasn’t as raucous as in the World Cup, but the Colombians certainly made themselves heard. It took ages to leave the stadium as only one exit was open, and the metro queues were endless. But, who cares? It might not live up to FIFA infrastructural standards, and it’s all about the football.
- Brazil vs Venezuela (Estadio Monumental, Santiago)
I was lucky enough to see the Canarias in action twice, and with Colombia and Peru having already played out a 0-0 draw, the final group game threw up quite a few permutations. Going into the game, all four teams in the group were deadlocked on 3 points having claimed a single-goal victory each, but Brazil and Peru had scored a goal more than Colombians. The already-played 0-0 had sent Peru through to the quarters, and a score draw played out here would see both teams through to the next round at the expense of Colombia given that Venezuela would edge them on head-to-head record. Was it to be a repeat of the Scandinavian lockdown which put Italy out of the 2010 World Cup?
As it happened, staggered kick-off times didn’t affect the spirit of the game and Brazil ran out 2-1 winners despite a late rally from Venezuela. Quality told and Brazil hogged the ball all game, Willian standing out well in the absence of Neymar. They played better as a team, looking for the best pass instead of picking out their talismanic striker, who’d already gone back to his home country following his suspension. Thiago Silva capped a solid performance by scoring from a corner early on, and Firmino, later to be of Liverpool, scored from a Willian cross. Ironically there were more Colombians in the stands than Brazilians and they willed their opponents from the previous match to withstand a Venezuelan aerial bombardment in the last few minutes. The final whistle was met with mild applause and more of the local CHI-CHI-CHI-LE-LE-LE was heard than anything else.
- Argentina vs Jamaica (Viña del Mar)
I suppose every football fan wants to watch the best players in action, and I’m definitely not the exception. I’d seen Cristiano Ronaldo a few years previous playing for Portugal, who incidentally failed to impress on that occasion, and Neymar a few days earlier. In other words the second and third-best players in the world, because yes, I’m in the Messi camp, and for that other great debate, I side with Maradona. Skill, grace and aesthetic quality above athleticism and raw power for me.
Despite their win and a draw against Uruguay and Paraguay already being enough to put them through due to the third-placed team in Group A, Ecuador, only accumulating 3 points in their 3 games, Argentina fielded what was probably their best eleven. I was delighted to hear Messi’s name read out over the tannoy, and stars such as Higuaín, Di Maria and Mascherano weren’t rested either. As was expected, the Argentines bossed possession and carved Jamaica open at will in the first 20 minutes. Higuaín broke the deadlock following a calm build up including a dozen or so passes and the lead should have been extended further in all honesty. I was diligently on Messi watch and don’t believe he gave the ball away a single time. He has such perfect balance and technique and appeared to float around the pitch with majestic ease.
At the interval the game was at 1-0 still, and the second half saw the Jamaicans come out with fire in their bellies. The shackles came off and as shown in previous outings against Uruguay and Paraguay, effort wasn’t lacking and they had pace and power in abundance, but technique and composure let them down somewhat. They found themselves in numerous good positions as the half wore on, driven on by the instrumental Jobi McAnuff, who had just been relegated to the fourth tier of English football with Leyton Orient, but were oft too keen to take on the glorious screamer from outside the box rather than play a more intricate pass. The match ended with the solitary Higuain strike between the sides, not a great result on paper, but the murmurs amongst supporters suggested Argentina aould grow into the tournament as in Brazil in 2014 where they reached the final. As fate would have it, they’d reach the final via a penalty shootout win over Colombia and 6-1 destruction of Paraguay.
In terms of the atmosphere I was a touch disappointed. Argentines have the reputation of being a really vociferous set of supporters and hadn’t let themselves down at the World Cup. I’d hoped it would be akin to the crammed-in-like-sardines jumping madness of the Bombonera, where once upon a time I’d seen Boca Juniors play, but in Viña del Mar there was definitely a greater family aspect to the stands and a friendlier feel. Notwithstanding, they beat out their Soy Argentino anthem, but failed to recite the array of songs I’d heard down on Copacabana beach a year previous. It was also a special moment for me to be in with the Argentines after the crying incident in the aftermath of the extra-time loss to Germany at the World Cup.
For those who wonder why Jamaica were playing in South America’s regional tournament, and Mexico for that matter, then here is the explanation. Given there are only ten nations on the continent who are members of CONMEBOL, the South American football association, in order to create a format conducive to making the whole thing worthwhile they need at least two more teams to participate. Traditionally, they are Mexico, who this time sent a second string along, and the USA, who rejected the invitation. Japan had been lined up as their replacement, but pulled out, leaving Jamaica to fill the void. An excellent opportunity for the likes of McAnuff, Wes Morgan and company to test themselves against the quality of player they’d never usually come across.
The three games watched, July employment beckoned for me, so I left the country as the tournament was entering the knockout phase. Chile would go on to defeat Argentina in the final on penalties, Alexis Sanchez sealing the deal with a delicious panenka for the decisive spot kick. The country would go mad amid a sea of red and Chile would finally have its maiden trophy after such a long wait. There would still be time for Arturo Vidal to go to a casino, get a little drunk, write off his Ferrari and sob apologetically in a press conference for his misdemeanours, though this didn’t get in the way of a transfer to Bayern Munich after the tournament. Brazil would be embarrassingly eliminated by Paraguay and their supporters would continue to be disillusioned and ask why they reappointed Dunga, especially as he wasn’t even popular the first time round.
I would go away happy for having sampled another football tournament, perhaps enhanced by the buzz created by the World Cup of 2014, and content for having seen Messi and Neymar play live, though in contrasting circumstances. In another blog I’ll talk about my experience of Chile itself, but for now I’ll schedule my life around Euro 2016 in France and the Olympics in Rio shortly after.
Hope when the moment comes, you’ll say…