Copa América Centenario. From beginning to end, a tournament filled with controversy and stuffed with surprises. Somehow, even Chile – last year’s winners – repeating their victory managed to come as a shock.
Since thoughts of organising a special edition of the Copa América arose, there were doubts. A tournament with a century of history, the oldest international continental competition, was being moved to a country which is not part of CONMEBOL. Where soccer isn’t nearly as popular as it is in South América. A celebrated South American tournament was being held in a North American country.
Amidst the planning and preparation for the tournament, FIFA-gate broke. Many of the names involved in the scandal were also involved in the organisation of the Copa América Centenario, jeopardising the execution of the tournament. Somehow, though, the show went ahead.
Still, many believed the tournament was “fixed” in a way that allowed Mexico to crown itself champion. When Chile’s anthem, rather than Uruguay’s, was played before the Mexico – Uruguay match, it was suggested this was intentional, a way of mentally rattling Mexico’s opponents. Uruguay, the most successful team in Copa America tournaments, was also eliminated at the early stages of the tournament after a 0-1 loss against Venezuela.
Mexico went on to qualify first in its group while Uruguay failed to advance, but the real Chile was waiting in the quarterfinal. Chile proved its seriousness about holding the title, crushing Mexico 7-0. It was a tough loss for Mexico, one of the favorites to win the tournament…at least until we saw what Chile was hiding under its sleeve. If the tournament was fixed in Mexico’s favor it didn’t work so well.
Unlike Chile, it took 23 years for Ecuador to reach the quarterfinals, a stage it had last seen when hosting the 1993 edition. Along with Venezuela, it is one of two CONMEBOL nations not to have won the tournament. In fact, Ecuador rarely makes it through the group stage, despite having attended three of the last four World Cups. For Ecuador, each edition of the Copa América is a new opportunity to redeem itself.
But the Copa América Centenario has been full of surprises, and Ecuador was one of them. Making it past the group stage was not as simple as it had seemed, despite what looked like a relatively easy group. After a goalless draw with Brazil and a 2-2 draw with Peru, it felt like Ecuador might be on its way home. Instead, a solid 4-0 victory over Haiti meant a place in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Brazil was eliminated after losing to Peru 1-0, on a controversial goal scored by the hand of Raúl Ruidíaz. Such an early send-off, followed after the embarrassing exit at Brazil’s World Cup, has few thinking the hosts will make a good impression at the upcoming Olympic games.
As we say here in Ecuador, “the ball never lies”. Peru left Brazil behind thanks to a goal scored with the hand. Unlike Ecuador, Peru performs better in shorter tournaments, winning Copa América twice and finishing in the top four 15 times. Again, Peru performed well, but was it really fair to advance with a handball? In 2010, Uruguay defeated Ghana with the help of Luis Suárez’s handball, but fell to Netherlands in the semifinal. As for Peru, its fate was a 2-4 loss to Colombia in a penalty shootout. The ball never lies.
Football also does not forgive. Costa Rica, who amazed the world in Brazil, was supposed to do the same at Copa América. But after a goalless draw with Paraguay, Costa Rica lost 4-0 to the United States, so its win over Colombia (a very intense, physical and tight match) came too late.
That dramatic US win pushed the team to the top of its group, meaning Ecuador had to face the hosts in the next round. 90 minutes later and the joy was over for Ecuador. While the US was superior, it’s also clear home advantage does exist. Ecuador only won one match in this Copa América, yet won each of its home matches during 2014 World Cup qualifying. The United States has finished in 4th place twice, the second time being this Copa América Centenario.
But the hosts could not stop Lionel Messi and his Argentinian teammates. Messi proved he is still the best in the world, leading his team to a solid 4-0 win against USA. Argentina winning wasn’t really a surprise, yet it feels like a surprise every time you watch Messi play. He scored his team’s second goal with a perfect free kick: over the wall and floating into the keeper’s upper left corner. A goal that seemed hand drawn, just too perfect to be true.
The final provided the biggest thrills – and, possibly, the biggest surprise. Messi’s Argentina had been among the favorites from the start, while holders Chile needed time to warm up. But even after the 7-0 win over Mexico, and even with players like Eduardo Vargas, Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez, most still felt (and wanted) Argentina and Messi to win.
It was a replay of the 2015 Copa América final, with plenty of intensity and drama. Both teams saw players sent off during the first half, banished by a referee that seemed to enjoy admonishing players. History repeated itself once again; the champion was to be decided in a penalty shootout after a scoreless 120 minutes.
Arturo Vidal, one of the best players during the match, was the first one to shoot, but Sergio Romero decided not to let the ball in. Now came Messi – the captain of Argentina and the best player in the world. It was his chance to finally win a title with his country. In front of a crowd of more than 80,000 spectators, Messi proved that – despite popular belief – he is human after all. He sent the ball over the crossbar. We couldn’t believe what our eyes were seeing.
On Argentina’s 4th penalty, Claudio Bravo showed he deserved the tournament’s Golden Glove, blocking Lucas Biglia’s penalty. Francisco Silva stepped to the spot for Chile. Francisco Silva, with less than 30 caps, a player subbed in during extra time. The midfielder scored. Chile were Copa América champions. Again.
Once more Argentina went home empty-handed.
Players will shed blood and tears for their team – although, in Argentina’s case, half the team threatened to quit immediately following. That’s what we love about the beautiful game: it knocks down obstacles, it unites people and nations, and it shows again and again that nothing is decided until the final whistle. The ball never lies.