Eight by Eight’s Ian Walker and South American football extraordinaire Tim Vickery preview the world”s oldest football tournament
Since moving to Brazil from England in 1994, Tim Vickery has become everyone’s go-to man for anything and everything related to South American football in the English language. His vast knowledge on the sport and culture of South America has seen him contribute to BBC Sport, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer, and a number of other publications throughout his career. There is no one better to discuss the continent’s biggest tournament, the Copa América, which kicks off on June 11 in Chile. Tim was kind enough to take time out of his afternoon to discuss not only the storylines happening on the pitch this summer, but what the tournament means off of the pitch.
Ian Walker Several South American teams in the last World Cup suffered some pretty big psychological traumas. Brazil capitulated in epic fashion against Germany; Argentina fell at the final hurdle, as Messi was again denied his World Cup; Chile lost to Brazil in the second round for the second World Cup in a row; and Uruguay lost Luis Suárez. Do you think these experiences will have an effect on the way they perform in the upcoming Copa América?
Tim Vickery Perhaps, but that was a very glass is half-empty kind of introduction. If you want to flip it the other way and say the glass is half-full, you’ll notice that in the last two World Cups, only one South American team failed to make it out of the group stage, which was Ecuador, in Brazil, and only by a very narrow margin. So the glass is half-full approach says the strength in depth in South American national team football has never been better, and what a positive reason to celebrate the Copa América, the world’s oldest continental competition, which is now 99 years old.
The glass is half-empty would reflect on some of those traumas from that Copa. The only place Brazil can really regain the prestige they lost in the World Cup is in the World Cup, but this is Brazil’s first competitive games since that competition. Argentina are without a senior title since the Copa América of 1993; Uruguay are without Luis Suárez, their star player; and Chile, the hosts, are the side who are going into this Copa with the most pressure, with half an eye on Brazil”s emotional breakdown last summer. So you can look at this in either a glass is half-full or glass is half-empty way.
IW Jorge Sampaoli, Chile”s manager, often talks about how he will never compromise his philosophy because he wants to go mano-a-mano against every opponent. But with the huge pressure they’re facing at home to finally win a Copa América, do you think it may be in the back of his mind that they should be more pragmatic and just focus on winning instead of being concerned about aesthetics?
TV Well, I think they’ll want to get through and advance as a consequence of maintaining their style of play. I don’t think Sampaoli’s doubts are so much about the identity Chile has. They are purely about the psychological risks. Chile came very close to knocking Brazil out in the second round of the World Cup and seeing that close up has kind of haunted Sampaoli ever since. Chile are very, very concerned about the psychological effects of being the hosts. But there is no doubt about it—the way that Chile play is non-negotiable. If they stop playing that way, that in itself is recognition that the psychological aspect has proved too much for them.
IW Brazil stayed in their comfort zone with Dunga and results have been good since his reappointment as manager: but are they ready for another competition so soon, or do they want to reestablish themselves immediately and try and correct last summer?
TV They certainly do I think. They won’t have to face that pressure of playing the World Cup at home for several decades. It will be a long, long time before the World Cup comes back to Brazil. You’re right, the results under Dunga have been positive. They’ve won eight games in a row, although it may be worthwhile mentioning that going into the World Cup, Luis Felipe Scolari’s side had won nine in a row, scoring 13 and conceding two. Friendlies are all very well, but the only real barometer is the competitive stuff and that’s what we’re going to find out with Brazil now. But quite clearly, for all of the problems in Brazilian football, which are many, the 7-1 belonged to the World Cup. It belonged to the pressures of playing that World Cup at home and the way that over the course of the competition, the team collapsed. Thankfully for them, they won’t face those pressures again.
IW Everyone wants to focus on Messi, and when he is going to win a title with Argentina and step out of that humongous shadow of Maradona. He came close to it last summer, and now Carlos Tevez is back after being exiled from the national team by Alejandro Sabella. Will the return of Tevez have any impact on Messi, or will he pick up where he left off in the last World Cup?
TV I don’t think the recall of Tevez will have any effect on Messi. There was a while when it was a problem for Argentina, I understand, because Tevez had great problems dealing with the fact that Messi was on a global scale and undoubtedly the far bigger idol. But when Tevez had grown up as the idol of the people in Argentina, he was a star as a teenager for Boca Juniors, Argentina’s most popular club, whereas Messi grew up from an early age in Barcelona. So I think there was bad blood between them.
Now Tevez has been recalled at a time in both of their careers where the fact that Messi is number one in the pecking order is no longer in dispute. One of the concerns surrounding Tevez is whether he’ll actually play. His international career has been very poor. Thirteen goals in 68 games—it’s a really poor international record, and since his recall he hasn’t really done anything. He looks like a different player than the one who plays for Juventus, and Tata Martino is saying ‘we’ve got one place for either Aguero, Higuain, or Tevez,’ and it could well be in exactly that order. So whether Tevez gets too many opportunities remains to be seen.
It doesn’t remain to be seen that Messi is the man for the Argentine attack. But Argentina’s problems, if they are to end this long dry run without a senior title are at the other end. There’s a lack of pace there in the heart of the Argentine defense. It wasn’t too much of a problem in the World Cup, because with so many of the star names either injured or not anywhere near 100% fitness, Argentina played a much more cautious game-plan. They defended much deeper, and that lack of defensive pace was covered up. When they want to come out and play and attack the opposition you do wonder a little bit about whether they have the speed at the back to deal with the best opponents that the Copa can throw at them.
IW Uruguay will be without Luis Suárez, who is still serving his international ban for what happened in the World Cup. They are always contenders, especially under Oscar Tabárez, because they are such an organized, gritty side with exceptional individual talent. But will they still be able to challenge for the Copa América without Suárez?
TV It’s asking a lot, I think, because he is their main man by a considerable distance. I don’t think Tabárez will be unduly concerned if they don’t challenge too hard for it. Remember the place of the Copa América in the calendar in South American football. In the year after the World Cup there are no competitive matches—it’s only friendlies, a lot of lucrative trips to the far East, and a lot of games staged in the United States. The Copa kicks off a new cycle of competitive games. Coming up later this year, starting in October, is World Cup qualification in South America. There”s more focus on the teams picking up experience in the Copa—on the coach getting their feet under the table—so that they’re ready for World Cup qualification when it starts.
Obviously, Uruguay don”t have a new coach, it’s been Tabárez since 2006. But it is, especially without Suárez, quite a new team. Since the World Cup, in the friendlies that they’ve had, they’ve given international debuts to I think nine players. Almost all of them are graduates from the very successful under-20 side that Tabárez has also looked after and helped groom. Results have been very good in the friendlies—Uruguay have done quite well—but the competitive stuff is different, the demands are much, much higher. Really, for Uruguay, I think what this tournament is about is giving experience to these new young players. The fact that Suárez is absent means the responsibilities on them in the Copa are all the more. It’s a chance for Tabárez to see how his young players cope with this pressure and whether this leaves them better prepared for World Cup qualification. So I think Tabárez will go with the idea that anything they get in terms of results out of this Copa América is a bonus.
IW Jose Giménez, Diego Rolan, and Giorgian De Arrascaeta are three exceptionally talented youngsters from Uruguay that could have a big impact on this tournament and international football in the future. Who are some other talented youngsters to keep an eye on this tournament?
TV One place where you really want online casino to look at young players are Colombia’s center-backs. The captain, Mario Yepes, is not far off 40, and that’s an area of the team where Colombia has had to rebuild. The stuff in friendlies hasn’t been bad—it hasn’t been bad at all—although at times the opposition haven’t been testing But Jeison Murillo, of Granada in Spain, looks an interesting center-back. This tournament is his first international test, and one of the highlights of the group phase of the Copa América is Colombia against Brazil, and Jeison Murillo, and maybe Pedro Franco of Besiktas, facing the likes of Neymar and co.—that will be a test for them.
For Brazil, Roberto Firmino of Hoffenheim in Germany. He was almost a complete unknown to the Brazilian public when he was first called up late last year but he’s made a very promising start to his international career.
IW It can be argued that globalization has had a negative effect on the South American game because the best South American players are often jettisoned off to Europe by the time they’re 21 or 22, if not younger. So the only interaction they have with their international teammates is when they occasionally train, and players don’t have the same connection and devotion to the national team that they would have had if they stayed and played club football. Do you agree?
TV Globalization has had a clearly hugely negative effect on club football in South America. The distance between club football in South America and club football in Europe has never been wider. But, paradoxically, I think it’s had a positive effect on the national teams, because you get teams like Ecuador now with lots of players in the English Premier League. Ten to 15 years ago that was absolutely unthinkable. So they’re picking up top-level experience and losing the inferiority complex that Ecuadorian players used to feel.
You can clearly see in the last few World Cups the progress that South American national team football has made: The last World Cup was the best World Cup in the history of Colombia; the previous one was the best World Cup in the history of Paraguay; the one before that was the best World Cup in the history of Ecuador; and the last two World Cups have been the best in the history of Chile, with the exception of ’62, which Chile hosted. Venezuela, who used to just be making up the numbers, a land of baseball and beauty contests, are now taken seriously.
IW The last Copa América wasn’t a great spectacle in terms of the actual football being played. Paraguay was able to make it to the final without winning a game, and didn’t score a goal past the group stage. Can we expect something similar, or will it follow a similar pattern to that of last summer’s World Cup where teams were much more adventurous and went out to win?
TV I hope so. I was there in Argentina in 2011—I’ve been to every Copa since 1999—and certainly it was a defensive tournament and Uruguay read that early on and their team became more defensive and pragmatic over the course of the tournament, and went on to win it. I have higher expectations for this Copa. I think there’s much more quality around. But there’s a clear comparison we have to make with the World Cup. In the World Cup, the teams are totally prepared: they’ve been through a lengthy qualification process, they’ve been together for some considerable time, they have built towards this tournament. The Copa América, because it kicks off this new cycle of competitive games, the level of preparation of the teams is not nearly as high. Some of these teams have only just named coaches: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay; they haven’t had coaches very long. Some of them have only had one or two games in charge of their national teams, and hardly had any time to train with their players. Certainly in comparison to the World Cup, teams are going into the Copa with a level of preparation that is far inferior. And when perhaps you haven’t had that level of preparation, you’re worried about the level of preparation of your team, it’s a natural tendency to play a little bit more defensive as a consequence.
IW Uruguay were the surprise winners of the last Copa América—is there any dark horse team this time around that you think could win the tournament?
TV The three favorites are the three heads of the group: Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. I think Argentina and Brazil are the two overall favorites. The dark horses are Colombia, and the really, really dark horses, horses so black you can’t see them at night, would be Ecuador. Ecuador has a new coach, but it’s the same line, the same footballing idea and philosophy. It’s a coach who knows some of the players. The group is relatively easy. I think Ecuador probably will benefit from facing the hosts Chile in the first game, which could be a little bit nervy, with Bolivia to come you certainly would expect Ecuador to pick up at least three points and get into the quarterfinals. Then after that, in the quarterfinals and semifinals, after 90 minutes the game goes straight to penalties. So there’s always a chance there. I don’t think there are many fullbacks in the tournament who will relish facing Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero. Ecuador could be the most interesting of the real outsiders.
IW For those who haven’t watched much of Ecuador, what is their philosophy, what is their style that makes them a dangerous team.
TV They’re quite big and strong physically. That will be an interesting aspect to look out for in the first game against Chile, who don’t have that physical size. What Ecuador look to do is break very, very quickly down the flanks with their wingers. They’ve got a central midfielder, Christian Noboa, who has a lovely range of passing and he, from center field, will look to spray the ball quickly to the flanks. They”ll look to break very quickly with Antonio Valencia, of Manchester United, on one side and Jefferson Montero, a more sensuous dribbler who has had a very good debut with Swansea city, from the other. So that’s what Ecuador do, they look to give you problems down the flanks.
IW What is the cultural and social significance of the Copa América to the people of South America compared to the World Cup and other footballing tournaments?
TV The Copa América is the world’s oldest continental tournament. It’s had such a checkered history and it started in 1916. In the early years, it was mainly restricted to the south cone of Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. In the early years it was held almost annually. There were years of flu epidemics and other things when it couldn’t be held, but the idea was to hold it annually.
In those early years, it was responsible for a massive rise in standards, which pretty much directly leads to the World Cup. Uruguay came over to the Paris Olympics in 1924, and no one had ever heard of them. They wiped the floor with everyone and won the gold medal in the Olympic football competition, which created an absolute fever for the game and the necessity for a World Cup. We had to find out, ‘Who’s best? Are the English internationals better than these Uruguayans who were so good?’ So the World Cup started in 1930 more or less as a direct consequence of the Copa América.
The Copa América had some great times in the 1940s, when it was playing host to perhaps some of the greatest football ever seen. Consequently, especially in the times of military dictatorships in South America, the Copa fell into neglect, and after that in 1987, when democracy was returning, it was brought back. And after that, it’s been held in all of the ten countries of South America, many of them for the first time. We went to Venezuela for the first time in 2007, to Colombia for the first time in 2001, for the first time to Paraguay in 1999. We’re now on the second lap of the countries. It’s now the Copa that kicks off this new cycle of competitive games, prepares teams for World Cup qualification, so it’s got a good place in the calendar.
The Copa is also now being used as a means of confronting one of the big problems of South American football, which is excessive centralization. One of the big problems of the economies of South American countries is they’re dependent on a huge capital, and the hinterland is very poorly developed. So what the Copa is now doing is looking to invest in stadiums in the provinces as well. There are nine different stadiums being used in this Copa, which is by far the most of any international tournament ever held in Chile. And one thing which is very interesting, is that this Copa is almost entirely sold out. Granted, a lot of the stadiums are not big capacity, but I can remember being at Copa América matches where there were more police in the stadium than there were fans. Those days have gone now.