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Copa America 2011 – International Defences On Top Again

A great deal of Copa America analysis has been dedicated to the failure of the game´s big names to impose themselves on the competition against lesser known defenders. From the opening game onwards, when Argentina failed to overcome lowly Bolivia, defences were on top in a tournament that yielded a meagre 54 goals, in comparison to Venezuela 2007´s generous offering of 86.

Argentina´s failure to negotiate the penalty shoot-out with neighbours Uruguay, in particular, has triggered the national psychosis of a nation that believed that with home advantage, and the strongest squad at the tournament on paper, they should surely have added their fifteenth Copa America rather than their killjoy neighbours from the other side of the River Plate, who coincidentally triumphed the last time the tournament was played in Argentina, in 1987. In the wake of Argentina´s only victory at the tournament (a 3-0 stroll in the park against Costa Rica under-21s) goalscorer Sergio Aguero got a tad carried away declaring that Argentina were ´superior to any opponent´.

A remark, placed in the context of Uruguay´s collective superiority and well-deserved triumph, that seems faintly ridiculous to say the least. However, given the strike force available to Argentina, the likes of Tevez, Higuain, Aguero, Diego Milito, Lavezzi, not to mention the pre-eminent magician of World Football that is Lionel Messi, it does beg a few questions of the Coach (who as I am writing is likely to pay the price with his job), the players (who disappointed once again after the Germany debacle in South Africa), and an often overlooked aspect: the success of the opposition in shackling the aforementioned array of stars.

Tournaments where defences are on top and the big guns fail tend to be condescendingly dismissed or explained in terms of some kind of stitch-up in the football world by players, fans and media alike. Greece´s 2004 Euro triumph was variously described as ´anti-football´, ´a fluke´, ´dull´ and ´neanderthal´ by a bewildered European media, South Korea´s run to the Semi-Finals of the 2002 World Cup sparked off a series of paranoid conspiracy theories, death threats to referees and players alike and general sourness in Italy, and Inter ´s 2010 Champions League triumph was attributed in large measure to the otherworldly divinity of the ´Special One´ rather than his players.

However, a tournament that saw both Brazil and Argentina win only one game each, both Messi and Robinho fail to get on the scoresheet and Paraguay reaching the final on steadfastness alone (with five consecutive draws) suggests that somewhere along the line, the art of defending and the much-underrated quality of collective organisation and coordination were in evidence. This tournament showcased some excellent team performances that are in danger of being overlooked in favour of the usual discourse on the big names failure to produce.

The likes of Venezuela´s Oswaldo Viscarrondo and Juan Arango, Juan Manuel Vargas and Pablo Guerrero of Peru, Christian Riveros and Nestor Ortigosa of Paraguay and Diego Lugano, Arevalo Rios, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez of Uruguay, to name a few, all performed at a consistently high level in every game.

Looking back on the last two World Cups, where the likes of Ronaldo and Messi also floundered, it is worth noting that the same kind of reliable, team-oriented players as those highlighted above thrived in well-drilled teams, successfully frustrating the World´s biggest name players, who were duly labelled flops by the media. Players like Miroslav Klose, Bastion Schweinsteiger, Phillip Lahm, Gianluca Zambrotta, Wesley Schneider and Fabio Cannavaro shone with unselfish and intelligent play, rather than players who look to unlock defences with long solo-runs or individual guile.

This recent development in international football suggests that teams inspired by one genius, such as Maradona in 1986 are less likely in an era of vastly improved tactical awareness, globally based experienced squads and overall more evenly balanced looking games.

The prolific goalscoring feats of the La Liga´s star attractions are unlikely to reach the national stage. The shutout job performed by Uruguay and Paraguay in the quarter final round was the work of defenders who could ply their trade at the top level on a regular basis (the latter will rue their lack of attacking thrust however). The commonly held view suggests that the reason forwards like Messi struggle to produce their best on the international stage is that they are not surrounded by the same calibre of player or they don´t reach the same level of understanding as they do for their supposedly superior club sides, I would argue that conversely, a more positive take on international football, would be that Messi and co face a far more stubborn and determined defence against a team like Uruguay, than they would in a league game against Getafe or Levante for example.

Beyond the furore and inquest surrounding the respective exits of Brazil and Argentina , it is time to note the considerable progress, in terms of getting the most from the players available and organising a competitive side, made by nations like Peru and in particularly Venezuela (who came within a shoot-out of the final and didn´t lose a game in normal time), and the remarkable job done by Uruguay and their manager Oscar Washington Tabarez, whose side once again shone on the international stage dispelling any notion of a fluke in South Africa. His side were well-organised defensively, extremely competitive and quick and dangerous upfront despite the absence of one of their attacking triad Edinson Cavani.

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