The grand final of Copa America Centenario was simply a disgrace. An ugly, shameful event. It sullied what had been an enjoyable tournament, it utterly ruined what should have been a wonderful evening of the best the sport has to offer.
Instead, Chile and Argentina combined to give us the sport at its turgid, mean-spirited worst. One hundred and twenty minutes of ill-tempered hacking, and barging and fouling and mobbing the hapless referee.
OK, there were fleeting moments of good soccer -- but they were very fleeting, not nearly enough to satisfy the expectations, never mind to justify the Himalayan ticket prices.
Not for the first time -- in fact, it has become the rule rather than the exception -- the sport of soccer let itself, and its millions of devotees, down badly. As to why that happened, and who was to blame -- well, we can start just 20 days earlier, when the same two teams met in a first round game. Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla praised Argentina and Chile for bringing The Beautiful Game to the tournament -- “they dazzled” he said. Argentina took the game 2-1, but they had played without Lionel Messi. Chile took notice. If the teams met again later in the tournament, a new game plan would be required.
In the final we got virtually the same players. Just three changes. One of them -- surely a boost for the Beautiful Game -- was the insertion of Messi. Yet the same players, so sublime on June 6, sank to unsightly crudeness on June 26.
Inevitably, Brazilian referee Heber Lopes was criticized. An easy target, and the wrong target. For a referee, taking charge of a major final these days is likely to be a lose-lose situation. If he lets “the game flow” that can only mean he’s permitting fouls to go unpunished, with the danger that the fouling will get more physical. The referee will then be accused of “losing control of the game.” The alternative is to use the iron fist early, show the cards, maybe eject a player -- and then be accused of “ruining the final.”
Lopes, confronted with 22 undisciplined players who seemed determined to foul and then to mob the referee, ran out of patience after half an hour, and ejected Chile’s Marcelo Diaz for two yellow-card fouls on Messi. A brave decision -- I can’t recall the last time I saw a player ejected in the first half of a grand final.
Did this mean that referee Lopes had ruined the final? Possibly -- but what else was he supposed to do? Ignore the obvious, and physical, targeting of Messi?
Now, with an hour to go, we had an unbalanced final, 11 vs. 10. Leaving Argentina with the numerical advantage and nothing more onerous to do than to calm down, play their skillful game, and get the winning goal. Too much to ask, apparently.
The atmosphere was not yet rid of hostility and unpleasantness -- that must have been what drove Argentina’s Marcos Rojo to launch himself into a violent sliding tackle in midfield, in a situation that presented no danger at all to Argentina. Another red card -- but at least the numbers were equal again, and 10 vs. 10 meant more space ... and so, with the teams hopefully brought to their senses during the halftime break, there was definite hope for the second half.
But the sullen meanness that had characterized the opening 45 minutes continued. The spirit that could have saved this final -- the spirit of The Beautiful Game -- had fled the stadium. Nothing particularly admirable remained.
A packed Chilean defense, a slightly less packed Argentine defense, breakaways quickly snuffed out, dreadful finishing (especially by Argentina) to the few chances that arose, until the inevitable nadir for this dismal display arrived. A climax if you like, but an ersatz climax, the synthetic banality of the shootout. A horrible five minutes or so, seemingly designed less to decide a winner than to identify -- and then crucify -- a loser. If the referee didn’t ruin the final, the shootout will highlight the guy who lost it. The victim was Messi, who made a terrible hash of his kick. A brutally cruel and unfair fate for a great player.
Chile took the shootout, so Chile is champions. They are a good team, much better than they allowed themselves to show in this distorted game. That they should rely on a high-pressure game was hardly a surprise. It had worked wondrous well to wipe out Mexico, 7-0, less well, but well enough to bear Colombia, 2-0.
The idea was evidently that, bolstered by the use of Diaz as a pitbull to take care of Messi, the pressure would wreck Argentina’s slick passing game while Chile -- with the wonderful forward play of Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas -- could surely come up with a goal or two.
Good theory. But Argentina is not Mexico. For a start, Argentina has Javier Mascherano, probably the world’s best defensive midfielder, and it has Ever Banega, every bit as feisty and indefatigable as anyone Chile has.
So the game was physical from the get-go, and we got a stalemate. Yes, I do blame most of that on Chile, for selecting an unsuitable tactical approach, one that pretty much ensured a poisoned game. Of course, that can be obviously disputed. They did win the title, after all.
The problem -- and let me emphasize that there is a major problem here -- really starts with FIFA and the somnolent guys who compose the rulemaking body, IFAB. For decades these two groups have simply ignored their responsibility to ensure the integrity of the sport. IFAB is said, in the current rulebook, to “safeguard” the rules of the game. A horrendous misunderstanding of what it should be doing, which is to safeguard the game itself, to be constantly aware of harmful changes and attitudes that may be creeping in, and to make rules to outlaw them.
IFAB has never operated in this way, it has never viewed the rules as anything other than a code to be changed as little as possible. IFAB’s extraordinary divorce from the reality of the game is currently represented by its refusal to even acknowledge the existence of reliable stats that show a 60-40 advantage for the team kicking first in the shootout. Which means that winning the preliminary coin-toss goes a long way toward winning the shoot-out.
This 60-40 advantage can be considerably reduced by a slight alteration in the kicking order. Why does IFAB not act on this? I suppose, either because of sloth, or sheer ignorance, or an unwillingness to admit that it’s been getting things wrong for decades. In the Copa, Chile won the coin-toss, and then the shootout (admittedly with Messi’s help).
If FIFA does not want to see the sport tarnished by woeful finals, its free-flowing, goalscoring exuberance throttled by negative, anti-soccer tactics, it has the power to devise and enact rules that would make it more difficult, and less fruitful, to adopt those tactics.
What is lacking at FIFA and IFAB it would seem, is either the creative and imaginative spark to see the opportunity, or the will to act. Or, quite probably, both.