By Paul Gardner
Admittedly, I did not get what I wanted from the Grand Opening Game of the Copa America between Argentina and Bolivia.
I was looking for a festival of the skilled, artistic soccer that is the Latin game. Maybe we’ll still get plenty of that as the tournament unfolds, but we didn’t get much of it last night.
There are reasons, of course. The modern game, by which I mean the modern European game, does not have much time -- in the most literal sense of the phrase -- for ball artistry. So it’s worth remembering that all but one of Argentina’s 23 players play their soccer in Europe. In contrast, 18 of Bolivia’s team are with Bolivian clubs.
So there is the influence of Europe on the Latin game -- an influence that brings an emphasis on speed and strength and tactics. Those are qualities that tend to snuff out the traditional Latin game, as they did last night.
Also at work last night was the dreaded “opening game” factor -- the fear that if you lose the opening game in your initial three-game group, then your tournament is over. A fear that is substantially backed up by statistics from previous tournaments, all of which are nowadays played using groups of four teams for the opening group format.
The fear descends on both teams, but obviously last night the pressure it brought was felt much more intensely by Argentina. It was expected to win this one -- as the host team, as one of the favorites, a team bulging with top international stars, and playing before a stadium full of its own expectant fans. After all, who have Bolivia got to set alongside Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Angel Di Maria? In a word, nobody.
There was a further reason to expect success. It could, no doubt be the luck of the draw -- but it doesn’t look like sheer chance when the tournament’s two most powerful teams start off their action by playing the two supposedly weakest teams -- Argentina against Bolivia, and (on Sunday) Brazil against Venezuela.
Bolivia’s game plan was pretty obviously to stop Messi -- and it did that pretty successfully. Messi will have done little, on this showing, to convince those Argentine fans who believe he is over-rated, a pale shadow of their idol Maradona.
Could it be that Messi and Tevez simply don’t combine well? We’ve had examples of this supposed player-incompatibility over the years, though somehow the proof always seems inadequate.
Back in the late 1940s, England had two splendid forwards in Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney -- the England team of that era usually included one or the other, but rarely both. In the 1960s, the Italian coach Ferrucio Valcareggi felt that Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera couldn’t operate together -- he employed the famous stafetta the relay, where as one player was taken off the field, the other charged on.
Whatever, there was little to be seen from either Tevez or Messi. A far-from sparkling first half saw the Bolivians grow in confidence as an incoherent Argentina made a mess of nearly everything they tried. Neither goalkeeper was really troubled.
Just two minutes into the second half, a backheel from Bolivia’s Edivaldo Rojas went directly, and not with any great power, to the feet of Argentina’s Ever Banega, standing on his own goal line. And Banega let the ball slip under his feet.
Which gave Argentina about 45 minutes to get its act in order and score the three or four goals that most fans had been expecting. Nothing like that happened -- Argentina continued to struggle, a team without a game, while Bolivia remained remarkably calm under the increasingly frantic pressure, frequently playing the ball out of its own penalty area with short passes, even when surrounded and harried by desperate Argentines.
The Argentines got its life-saving goal in the 76th minutes -- a thing of beauty: a long cross from the left into the Bolivian penalty area, chested down by fullback Nicolas Burdisso to Sergio Aguero (he had been on the field only five minutes) who pounced and slammed a terrific volley into the net.
But it needs to be said that 10 minutes earlier, Bolivia’s Marcelo Moreno Martins muffed a great chance to put Bolivia 2-0 up when be broke through the Argentina defense, but could not manage to get around goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Argentina, one presumes -- surely with justification -- will get better. Costa Rica and Colombia are the other teams in its group, teams that play an open game that should allow Argentina to begin playing like . . . well, like Argentina. Because, frankly, on this gala opening night, though the Argentines were saved from disaster by Aguero’s superb goal, the quality of their soccer was poor.
It has been a long time since one felt that the South American team likely to produce the most faithfully South-American soccer would be Uruguay. But that is where we are now. Based on the performances in last year’s World Cup, we can expect a solid defensive performance from Paraguay, but it will be Uruguay that excites.
Unless ... we get back something of the real Brazil, another South American team that has, of late, been turning its back on its traditional game and becoming more European. That approach failed in South Africa, the coach who espoused it, Dunga (who played much of his soccer in Europe) has gone.
But, it seems to me, that it is not the departure of Dunga that may give us back a more Brazilian style -- it is the arrival of the teenager Neymar. A kid who has played all his life in Brazil, so far untouched by the need to “adapt” to the European game.
How satisfying it would be to see this tournament dominated by two superbly skilled young players. Messi, who has played most of his life in Europe but under the wonderfully creative wing of Barcelona’s style, and Neymar, still enjoying the freedom to play the sport with the enthusiasm and the wonder of a boy.