25 July 2011

The Copa America: the Tabarez legacy

Joseph Sexton reflects on a tournament that saw the emergence of the underdogs, and underperforming super-powers.

Luis Suarez has been one of the great successes of Tabarez's tenure Pic: ©SNS Group
This 43rd Copa América will be remembered for several things.

Some will point to the low goals per game tally, and justifiably highlight some poor games, particularly in the opening two rounds of fixtures. Others will point to the inexorable rise of the continent’s erstwhile underdogs. Nobody epitomised this more than Venezuela and Peru.

Venezuelan football has come a long way in the last 5 years; once the San Marino of region, a country where baseball has long been the national sport, they’ve now shown they have the talent and nous to mix it with the big boys.

Peru came into this tournament off the back of a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign in which they finished bottom of the pile without a single away point, were shorn of two of their stars and troubled by injuries to those present.

Both will feel confident now of making a real go of qualification for Brazil in 2014, and both embodied the merits of good coaching. For this was also a tournament about the coaches, and fittingly it will go down as one of the crowning glories of Uruguayan boss, Oscar Washington Tabárez’s illustrious career.

Argentina and Brazil both suffered to varying degrees from poor management. Tabárez, on the other hand, has proven a master of maximising the resources at his disposal. It’s worth nothing where Uruguayan football was when he took the helm for a second time in 2006. Uruguay failed to make the World Cup that year; just as they’d failed in 1994 and 1998. The burden of their glorious past weighed down on them, seeming to suffocate the players. Since then Tabárez has revolutionised their youth development. Victory last Sunday proved that last year’s fourth place finish in South Africa was no flash in the pan, and their recent successes at under 17 and under 20 level gives indications that their future is equally secure.

Here was a team that was tactically flexible, that recovered after a slow start to the tournament, and improved game by game. It is this unity and sense of purpose that allowed their superstars, Diego Forlán and Luís Suárez, the platform they need to showcase their brilliance.

Not that either of that pair are work-shy; Forlán got the goals his performances had merited in the final, but is a genuine leader. Suárez is every defender's worst nightmare. A true livewire, gifted with an exceptional ability to play in tight spaces and display sound decision making, he also chases down opposing players as if his life depends upon it. In a summer where some Liverpool fans have been left puzzled at their club’s transfer strategy, here was further confirmation that John Henry’s first signing is a true gem.

Indeed, so evident has the rise of standards been that not even Uruguay- and certainly not Argentina- will take qualification for the World Cup as a given. Tabárez was quick to point this out on Tuesday. “Winning the Copa América has no bearing. We prepared well for this tournament and won it, but now it’s time to look ahead to future challenges”.

“We will remain faithful to our approach. Our scientific studies reflect well on the work we did here. In the qualifiers the travel and different climates present challenges, and when you add to that the determination of fans and teams to make the finals.... this makes it even more competitive than a Copa América. We cannot just say to our rivals ‘Look, we just won the Copa’. The qualifying series is a new chapter”.

For Diego Forlán it was especially sweet. Off the back of his poorest season to date in La Liga, with his club future undecided, and having failed to find the net since South Africa last year before the final, the win and his brace were a vindication. To claim a record 15th Copa América on Argentine soil, become his country’s joint all-time top scorer, and follow in the footsteps of his father and maternal grandfather- both Copa winners in their own day- only added to his delight. “It makes me so proud to follow them, to continue their tradition. It’s not something that happens every day”.

The continent’s two superpowers have been left with much soul-searching to do. Arguably Brazil came consistently closer to getting it right over the course of the tournament. A lack of competitive games to come remains a worry, but Mano Menezes is secure in his position. His commitment to reverse a quarter century-long shift in Brazilian football by introducing a structured passing game in midfield is both admirable and correct, but more work remains to be done.

At times they were crying out for the passing ability of someone like Lazio’s Hernanes, who was again overlooked yesterday in Menezes’ squad for the coming friendly against Germany. Both Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar have a lot to learn at this level, but their progress over the last year shows us they are capable of better than we saw, and we can justifiably expect further improvement.

The machinations in Argentina began in earnest at the weekend. Public anger at the coaching structure, at the AFA and its boss Julio Grondona was palpable. Initially it looked like Grondona would brazenly stick with Sergio Batista; indeed the coach wrote in Clarín before the weekend of his desire to continue his ‘project’.
With the rumour mill in overdrive and elections looming, Grondona made an about turn to quell the unrest. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, it emerged that he’d thrown Batista to the wolves. The same delegates who had rubber stamped his appointment by a margin if 19-1 just months ago voted 16-4 in favour of rescinding his contract. Alejandro Sabella looks set to take the reigns, a choice that would be both shrewd and popular.

The other move was as cynical as it was intriguing. It was announced that the first division would expand to 38 clubs spread across several groups, breaking off into separate promotion and relegation sections in the latter stages. This of course guarantees that fallen giants River Plate will return to the top flight next year, and increases his power base amongst the regional sides. The upside to this is that in the ongoing decentralisation of Argentinian football will gain further impetus, and it’s fair to say this will be the country’s true legacy after a Copa where only the final was staged in Buenos Aires.

Team of the tournament (3-4-3)

Justo Villar (Paraguay); Osvaldo Vizcarrondo (Venezuela), Diego Lugano (Uruguay), Sebastian Coates (Uruguay); Maicon (Brazil), Tomás Rincón (Venezuela), Arturo Vidal (Chile), Álvaro Pereira (Uruguay); Luís Suárez (Uruguay), Paolo Guerrero (Peru), Sergio Aguero (Argentina)

Player of the tournament: Luís Suárez

You can follow Joseph Sexton on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on the STV Sports Blog

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