The Copa América quarterfinals that kick off this Wednesday night have a predictably familiar look, with host nation Chile taking on Uruguay in the midst of what is sure to be combustible Santiago and Argentina squaring off against stuttering but still dangerous Colombia.
Even without its suspended crown prince Neymar, Brazil is in the mix, too, and will face Paraguay in Concepcion on Saturday. Only the somewhat unglamorous clash in Temuco between Bolivia and Peru provides much of a surprise element, and despite their mostly unimpressive form to date, there is the sense that it will take a miracle for the title to go outside of the continent’s current Big Four (or five, if work-in-progress Uruguay joins Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Chile).
A week or so ago, however, things had looked rather different. Mexico’s reserve side battled its way to a pulsating 3-3 tie with Chile, while Paraguay, after trailing 2-0 at half time, fought back superbly to earn a draw against a shell-shocked Argentina. Peru briefly led against Brazil after a slapstick opening to the clash between the two sides in Temuco, while Venezuela overcame a Colombia side featuring James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado and Radamel Falcao. For a moment, it seemed as though the 2015 Copa América was to herald a new age of equilibrium in South American soccer.
The last edition of the tournament, held in Argentina four years ago, produced similarly surprising results, with Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia all bowing out in the quarterfinals. Venezuela, Peru and Paraguay reached the semis before Uruguay eventually restored some order and lifted the trophy.
When Venezuela, long one of South America’s whipping boys, promptly followed up that impressive display with a victory over Argentina in one of the early qualifying rounds for the 2014 World Cup, it seemed that La Vinotinto was perhaps ready to join fellow former minnows Ecuador, which has made it to three out of the last four Mundials, in the loftier echelons of soccer society. In the end, however, Venezuela’s early form faded and the side finished sixth, some five points behind Uruguay in the last play-off spot. Apart from Ecuador, it was the familiar faces that represented the continent in Brazil last summer.
Even so, the growth of the likes of Venezuela – traditionally more famous for baseball and beauty contests than soccer – and Ecuador represents a significant sea change in the South American game. Once the idea of such countries qualifying for the World Cup would have seemed the stuff of fantasy. But since the continent adopted its current marathon 18-round qualifying structure in 1996, countries have benefited from a calendar filled with regular games and, just as importantly, regular income, which in turn can be invested in infrastructure and youth development. The result has been a dramatic improvement in standards in a number of smaller soccer nations.
In Chile, meanwhile, the very nature of the Copa América has added to the sense of equilibrium. The effects of a long European club season on top players, an extra dollop of fierceness born of so many intense local rivalries, plus the competition’s apparently questionable importance for some sides (a number of coaches have said their main priority is the World Cup qualifying tournament that gets underway in a few months) makes this a particularly competitive, idiosyncratic event. Not to mention, of course, the democratic benefits of the tournament’s generous qualifying structure, which allows eight out of 12 teams to qualify for the knockout phase, giving hope to all but the humblest of competitors.
Yet despite the development shown by the smaller teams, history tells us we are unlikely to be celebrating an underdog winning the Copa América any time soon. In the 43 editions of this 99-year-old tournament, the oldest in the world, the title has gone outside the Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina power bloc only six times, and only once in the last 35 years (Colombia triumphed on home soil in 2001). Curiously, Argentina refused to take part in the competition that year, citing the host nation’s volatile public safety situation at the time. Its replacement, Honduras, reached the semifinals.
On paper, at least, the talent gulf between the continent’s haves and have nots remains immense. While Colombia boasts the likes of Real Madrid’s Rodríguez and Chelsea’s Cuadrado as its creative fulcrums, for example, Peru depends on the likes of Corinthians’ Paolo Guerrero, Schalke’s Jefferson Farfán and Bayern’s Claudio Pizarro for its goals. All are good players, but Guerrero and Farfan are 30 or over while Pizarro, who has had a stellar career, is 36, and started just a couple of games for the Bundesliga champs last year.
The same story is repeated across the tournament. While Argentina can afford to leave players of the caliber of Carlitos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain on the bench, Paraguay’s best hopes for goals are the much-travelled Lucas Barrios and the veteran Roque Santa Cruz. Similarly, as Brazil coach Dunga mulls over whether to start Thiago Silva, David Luiz or Miranda in the center of defense, Venezuela’s defensive starter Andrés Túñez plays his club soccer for Thai club Buriram United.
While Chile’s two most important players, Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal, were two of European club soccer’s biggest names this season, two of Mexico’s goals against Jorge Sampaoli’s team came from 33-year-old Matias Vuoso, who signed for Manchester City in 2002 but left a year later without playing a single game for the club. One of Bolivia’s main hope for goals, Marcelo Moreno, is a decent but similarly much travelled, veteran striker, who currently plays his club soccer for Changchun Yatai in the Chinese Super League.
One of soccer’s most obvious truisms – that success breeds stability, which breeds further success – also plays a part in maintaining the balance of power. While in South America such stability is usually rather more tenuous a concept than it is in Northern Europe or North America, it is surely significant that whereas Óscar Washington Tábarez has been in charge of Uruguay since 2006, and Jose Pékerman has managed Colombia for the last three years, Peru’s Ricardo Gareca and Paraguay’s Ramón Díaz have only been in charge of their squads for a matter of months. Both deserve tremendous credit for taking their sides to the quarterfinals.
South America’s smaller countries, and even the (deservedly) much-maligned CONMEBOL, deserve some credit for the way they have become competitive on the international stage. Despite such improvement, however, Copa América will likely to show that there is a long way to go before they are in a position to truly challenge the likes of Brazil and Argentina.