When the state of California celebrated its 100th anniversary in September 1950, it awarded itself three official medals, issued itself a commemorative stamp, and baked itself a 650-pound cake for the governor to ceremonially cut at its centennial celebration. But when this year’s Copa América kicks off on 3 June in Santa Clara, sadly there won’t be any cake.
Instead we can savor one hundred years’ worth of rivalries, feast upon minnows making their debuts on fútbol’s oldest stage, and relish international players coming together to settle old scores and make some new ones (looking at you … uh, well, everyone. Y’all know how to rumble). In honor of the Copa’s centennial, let’s celebrate the teams involved by taking a look at their best, scariest, or funniest moments leading up to their participation in this Copa América Centenario. No cake included. Unless someone decides to bake me some.
Let’s begin in a manner both historically and alphabetically accurate. The very first Copa América kicked off in Argentina, and only Brazil, Chile, and ruining-my-alphabetically-pleasing-list Uruguay joined los Albicelestes to inaugurate the tournament in 1916. These four South American powerhouses gave us much to talk about over the past one hundred years, enough that I’ve had to rely on our Unusual Efforts supporters for help in narrowing down their best moments. And then used my judgment, or lack thereof, in making the final choices! So, here goes, from A through U:
He had retired from international play the year before. His Boca Juniors team had won the Copa Libertadores the day before. Not one to rest on his laurels, when Juan Román Riquelme got the urgent call from national team coach Alfio Basile that his talent and leadership was needed, he renounced his retirement and flew from a still-celebrating Boca-blue Buenos Aires to Venezuela for the 2007 Copa América.
There, Riquelme, one of the oldest members of Argentina’s national team at the ripe old (according to fútbol commentators and my grandparents when they’re telling me I should be married already) age of 28, began a run of play that would earn him his reputation as “one of the last of the true number 10s.” It was not enough for Riquelme to score five times throughout the tournament, the second-highest scorer of any team; no, Juan Román proved that well-known adage “age means scoring with your head, either foot, from the run of the play and from set pieces, and also setting up Lionel Messi and Gabriel Heinze for game-winning assists.” You know that one. It’s cross-stitched in every grandma’s home.
Brazil has a long and illustrious footballing history. Past Copa América scorers include the illustrious names Zizinho, Pelé, Ronaldo, and, not to be outdone, Ronaldinho. Not even the absence of Neymar this summer will faze them; nope, these players of jogo bonito are sure to bring both beauty and strength to the centennial. But, astonishingly enough, there was a time when they brought neither, and, instead, turned the pitch into an MMA ring.
Back in 1946, the Copa América final at Argentina’s El Monumental stadium served up a vengeance-filled feud worthy of the Hatfields and the McCoysinhos. The previous Copa saw Argentina’s Jose Batagliero fracture his leg in a game against Brazil. When Batagliero took the pitch on Argentinian soil against their South American rivals, the stadium roared its approval. Not thirty minutes later, Brazil’s Jair Rosa Pinto slid into Argentina’s Salomón, breaking the Porteño’s leg (and effectively ending his career). Chaos immediately ensued, encompassing not only the players, but the spectators too, who swarmed the pitch en masse. For over an hour, soccer was replaced by rioting. Fighting broke out between teams, fans, and even the police, who eventually escorted the players into the dressing rooms where they huddled for over an hour until an exhausted and somewhat worse-for-the-wear police force managed to subdue the violence. When the players finally agreed to retake the field, Argentina won the anticlimactic match, 2-0. The referees’ commentary includes a very simple “note: the match was suspended for 70 minutes at 30th minute.”
C, for Cookie and for Chile (I teach preschool; I had to give my favorite Monster a shout-out). La Roja, on home soil, had drawn out the 2015 Copa América final to television’s beloved and fans’ (or is it just me?) hated penalty kicks. Against Argentina. With Lionel Messi. Their first Copa win was on the line.
It had, arguably, been a mess of a tournament, featuring controversial fouls and behavior, on- and off-pitch, and this last game had shown no signs of inspiration or brilliance. Neither team seemed willing to take the bold chances needed to push ahead for the win, settling instead for the inevitable penalties. Then up stepped little Matías Fernández, his name then known to no one outside of Chile’s most devoted fanáticos. His shot smashed past Sergio Romero, rippling the net long after the ball had settled and apparently so rattling the Argentinian penalty-takers that only Messi converted. An elated Chilean team and nation hoisted the cup for the first time in their history. (The most fun part? Fernández was born in Argentina, and could have chosen to play for los Albicelestes rather than Chile.)
Hearkening back now to 1916, and forward to the end of the alphabet, Uruguay faced Chile on 2 July to kick off the very first Copa América, then called the South American Championship of Nations, which was eventually shortened to Copa América so it could fit in a Twitter hashtag. True story… . Hosted by Argentina to commemorate that country’s centenary (¿que, no torta, Argentina?), the opening match was the first in international play to feature black players. Uruguay’s Isabelino Gradín and Juan Delgado were star players for Uruguay’s national team and, at the time, club team Peñarol.
Before the match, Chile’s squad complained that Uruguay would have an unfair advantage because they were using “African” players. Gradín and Delgado did, in fact, give Uruguay an advantage, as Gradín went on to score two goals in what would be a 4-0 rout over Chile and his third goal in the Copa semifinal to lift Uruguay over Brazil, mark him the highest goal-scorer of the tournament and lead Uruguay to their first of fifteen eventual Copa América wins.
The Copa América. Brought to you by CONMEBOL with the occasional participation of CONCACAF; the best and the worst of passion, guts (or, as the case may be, bones), and glory; stars, wunderkinds, aging heroes, and the soon-to-be-signed-by-Jose Mourinho; and the letters A, B, C, and U.
Stay tuned for Part 2, when we just might serve up some cake.