Copa America: a lively tournament, a scandalously poor final

By Paul Gardner

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.

32 comments about "Copa America: a lively tournament, a scandalously poor final ".
  1. Ric Fonseca, July 1, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.

    Folks, I hereby nominate Ridge Mahoney as the person to take over PG's so-called column! Oh, ok, he does excoriate Lopes the official, but please someone, any one, maybe Ginger, is this all PG does week after week?

  2. Tyler Wells, July 1, 2016 at 6:34 p.m.

    I actually totally agree with Paul on both counts; the final, as is so often the case with finals, was ugly and FIFA is oblivious to the problem (possibly distracted by the challenges resulting from its rampant corruption).

  3. Melissa Meister, July 1, 2016 at 6:43 p.m.

    Only someone who has never seen Paul Pogba play would state that Javier Mascherano is the world's best defensive midfielder. And lamenting Chile's physical play without recognizing Argentina's consistent diving (Messi included) is imbalanced reporting.

  4. Allan Lindh, July 1, 2016 at 6:52 p.m.

    One simple change that could be implemented tomorrow, would be when a yellow card is given for reckless, or brutal play, or persistent fouling, have the wall move back 15 yards from the spot of the foul. For a red for similar causes, set the wall 20 yards back from the spot of the foul. And then grade right out of the game refs that do not enforce the rules against dangerous, violent play, and persistent fouling of skill players. we all know what is going on. Keep trying rule changes until you take the fun out of dirty, cheating play.

  5. Kent James replied, July 1, 2016 at 8:04 p.m.

    That might help; good idea (worth trying anyway).

  6. stewart hayes replied, July 2, 2016 at 1:53 p.m.

    Yes I like the idea also, but suggest 12 yards for all free kicks just like the penalty so there is the existing figure in the rule book.
    Regarding the article, I've never much cared for flamboyant refs. Perhaps it sells in Brazil. Just make the calls, don't treat the players like they are your buddies.
    I had not seen the 60-40 advantage of the coin toss study. Thanks Paul.

  7. Stevie G, July 1, 2016 at 7:27 p.m.

    Rules designed so that both teams can score at will? How very American...

  8. Kent James replied, July 1, 2016 at 7:53 p.m.

    Who suggested that?

  9. F. Kirk Malloy, July 1, 2016 at 7:34 p.m.

    Paul, you showed up at the shooting range, but you hit all the wrong targets.
    Argentina, not Chile, set the thug tone in the first 20. Their players were constantly sniping Chile players away from the play and the center ref's view. Totally cynical, malicious and intentional. Further, soon the truly great Messi stooped deep by targeting Diaz for his second card, running directly into him (as Diaz tried to pull away), then from the ground brandished the shaking-hand-in-the-air gesture (universal for, give him a card!). Messi, who routinely - to his credit - gets bounced and knocked and fights to stay on his feet, barges into an already carded player going for the red. That, to me, was the final proof that Argentina was willing to do anything to win the game. So Chile lowered the bar? Sorry, swing and a miss.
    And the refs? Center ref overreacted too early? Sorry. It was the AR's silence during the first 20 that set the match down thug alley. If they'd called the off-play fouls RIGHT AWAY the game wouldn't have degenerated. Sorry, we weren't watching the same game.

  10. Wooden Ships replied, July 1, 2016 at 11:20 p.m.

    I saw it your way F Kirk. I still enjoyed the watch. Had the officiating reacted sooner, AR's as you mention it probably would have been different. I'm not a proponent of changing the game. 10 yards. Most games are fine as is.

  11. Leia Ambra replied, July 2, 2016 at 12:53 a.m.

    I agree. So unlike Messi...also going down so easy and appealing for a PK....

  12. Kent James, July 1, 2016 at 8:24 p.m.

    PG is always interesting (if occasionally repetitive). It was a very physical game, and far from beautiful. But it was very intense, so it was interesting in it's own way (and surely a goal would have made it better). But at least it was not a 'sit back and defend, see if the other team leaves an opening by mistake' kind of game. So there was a lot going on, and Chile's high pressing was what created the intensity (and so many other teams wilted under their relentless pressure). Certainly it was a VERY challenging game to referee. The first red card was a bit harsh (since Messi, and unusually for Messi, was clearly looking to create the foul), and the 2nd red would probably not have been a red had Chile not already had one (Rojos came in VERY hard, but since the Chilean player was also going back to the ball very hard, there was almost no contact). Not sure what to do about the physicality, since a lot of it was not dirty or illegal. Allan's suggestion is a start...

  13. Theodore Eison, July 1, 2016 at 10:43 p.m.

    Paul has never learned in all his years that soccer is a sport and not the ballet. The final was a hard fought and intriguing contest. Paul would rather watch a game full of flash where each team aimed to look pretty rather than win. Paul should've quit writing the same article over & over 10 years ago

  14. Julio Cesar, July 2, 2016 at 8:15 a.m.

    I don't know what game this guy watched . It was a good game between two very good national teams !! Very well organized Chile team against the always favorite Argentina and championship finals are always phisical and tough games . What else do you want ?

  15. beautiful game, July 2, 2016 at 11:18 a.m.

    I'm with Paul on this. FIFA has been derelict for decades in by letting the players dictate the game. Rules are broken constantly and the referees are derelict by not enforcing the laws of the game. Being physical and being a hacker are two different things.

  16. Kevin Leahy, July 2, 2016 at 1:31 p.m.

    Can FIFA please stop all these players from getting in the face of the referee on every call. It has become an ugly part of all high level matches. Matches can be plenty physical without all the intentional rule breaking.

  17. Wooden Ships replied, July 2, 2016 at 3:46 p.m.

    Fine and/or suspend managers for the conduct of their players, ie, getting in the referees face.

  18. Miguel Dedo, July 2, 2016 at 6:24 p.m.

    PG is spot on. 120 minutes of mean-spirited hacking with many intervals of players surrounding the referees like street dogs around a bitch in heat. If that is South American soccer then the Panama Canal should be supplemented with Donald Trump's wall.

  19. Richard Scully, July 2, 2016 at 6:42 p.m.

    As Mark Twain said:
    An Englishman (replace here with FIFA) is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven't. The truth is that soccer inherently favors the defense and the game should be changed. As my wise father pointed out, 22 professionals running around on the field with the goal of putting the ball in the net should be able to do so more than once or twice a game. Watch the NFL, the most successful league in the world. They constantly tinker with the game in order to ...wait for it....MAKE IT BETTER. Look at the past ten Super Bowls. They usually EXCEED the hype. Why? Because of the rules and structure of the game. The 1982 Brazilian WC team was glorious. They ultimately we're doomed because the "beautiful game" was punished. Change the rules.

  20. Wooden Ships replied, July 3, 2016 at 8:53 a.m.

    Richard, the US doesn't always get things right. The tinkering with the college and high school version is embarrassing. Laws, like in society are in place, its about enforcement. Holding those in charge accountable is most appropriate. I grew up watching pro sports in St. Louis and the Hawks of the NBA was neat. Then, just touching the player could warrant a foul, somewhere between a mugging and zero contact is a balance. The NFL, well that's hardly relevant. It's an event, consumer driven hype with about 13 or so minutes of actual play.

  21. Michael Saunders, July 3, 2016 at 9:21 a.m.

    Known Paul for many years and have agreed / disagreed with him as it pertains to officiating having been a Nat'l Ref. His column today is spot on. The IFAB is always two steps behind reality in that the Laws of the Game need to be tweaked. Love his phrase referring to them as “somnolent ". Beckenbauer about 15 years ago referred to the problem similarly when he said that too many of the rule guardians have " foot in the grave". The game has changed over the years as players are more technically sound and far more physically fit. It took years for them to realize that technology could be a valuable tool rather than a liability on something as simple as Goal Line Technology. Please don't respond to that point as FIFA waiting for the technology to be perfected because that is nothing more than an excuse. There is an old adage that applies here: “The best is the enemy of the good”. There were ways to introduce it and make it better as the technology improved. How about simulation and embellishment by players seeking to gain an unfair advantage, which I consider the bane of the game. If the NBA and the NHL addressed the same issue and succeeded to reduce their occurrence, why can't soccer do the same? I could go on but the fact remains the same..... the IFAB that is represented by not only FIFA but also 4 separate votes held by the nations of the UK need to do be more proactive in their studies and reviews to clean up the mess they themselves continue to foster.... I guess it is just easier to blame the referee.....

  22. Joey Tremone replied, July 3, 2016 at 1:05 p.m.

    Yep. Referees catch crap in many cases because soccer's crime and punishment system is jacked up. It goes straight from the trivial (regular fouls) to the catastrophic (reds, penalties) with tragically little in between. IFAB needed, long ago, to make the garden variety foul more severe, and the red and penalty less so, so that the team that makes rulebreaking a part of its game plan is punished by the accumulation, rather than by one deed that crosses some semi-arbitrary line of seriousness. Some ideas:
    * increase the free kick distance to 12 or 15 yards
    * make advantage 'automatic' by not whistling for the foul until the offending team gains control of the ball (as in ice hockey) allowing the suffering team essentially a 'free' sequence of play if they retain control
    * the sin bin: send every player who commits a foul off until the next stoppage of play, and every player who commits a yellow card infraction off for at least 5 minutes. This would not kill a team if it happened once, but the team that commits 20 fouls and 6 yellows? They would be hosed.

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, July 5, 2016 at 7:13 a.m.

    Mr. Saunders, thank you for posting your thoughts. My personal belief is that players and coaches have more influence over the spirit of a match than the referee, who can only react to the players' actions. Mr. Tremone I disagree with your observation completely. Generally speaking the quality of officiating is not the problem; diving and the cheating away from the ball are.

  24. Richard Scully, July 4, 2016 at 1:09 p.m.

    Wooden Ships - I'm not sure I can agree that the tinkering with the game at the college and high school levels is embarrassing. Unlimited substitution makes sense. In college we also had two refs, one in each half, saving one from having to sprint fifty yards back and forth, with the inevitable errors resulting from being too far away.
    I agree with Joey above, send players off for five or ten mins (they actually do this in some lower leagues in Holland and Germany.). I also think the original NASL use of the 35 yard line was great, since most of the game is played in the middle of the field. Have kick ins instead of throw ins. Allow the keeper to only handle the ball in the goalkeeper's box, not the penalty area. Dont allow any back passes.

  25. Kris Spyrka, July 4, 2016 at 7:18 p.m.

    In the end a totally forgettable final. Agree with F. Kirk Malloy as the columnist missed nuance here. This game however, was not so much ruined by player 'thuggery' more than it was by a self-absorbed, over dramatic, over zealous referee. The worst referee I've ever seen in any final, anywhere!

  26. ROBERT BOND, July 5, 2016 at 10:09 a.m.

    how is it mugging someone to stand still and he runs you over?

  27. Fire Paul Gardner Now, July 5, 2016 at 11:25 a.m.

    What a shock. Paul Gardner complaining about something. I swear, the man absolutely HATES soccer.

  28. ROBERT BOND replied, July 5, 2016 at 2:47 p.m.

    ugly? always beautiful to see the hellblau lose....

  29. Jorge Devotto, July 5, 2016 at 12:54 p.m.

    Regarding the 60-40 of the coin toss, tell the Italians that lost with all that advantage against Germany the other day...
    Regarding Chile's bringing the "dirty" game against Argentina, it was actually a very intense game, but that's football! Messi went down probably 5 times (not counting the dives) Non of those were hard fouls (integrity of the player at risk) on the other hand Chilean players were down after non sanctioned nasty fouls...i wonder, what game did you see???!!!

  30. Ric Fonseca, July 5, 2016 at 8:18 p.m.

    Jorge Devotto, well said mi amigo! Throughout the game my wife and I marveled at Messi's skills, yet blanched whenever he went down, by brute force or by an angel challenge. As for the chileno players, yeah they too got their butts kicked by the ever "so subtle" Argentinos who seemed to have mastered and have franchised how to take a dive via foul, or try to sell a foul, roll over and over clutching their face or leg (which the replay shows hardly a touch) and then sit up (hey Deuce is also very adept at this theatrics) and wave their hand appealing for a card... yada-yada. Which reminded me of the Brazil-Italy final in WCUSA94, which I equated to a chess game, through extra time and then the PK,s with Baggio orbiting the ball essentially giving Brazil the Cup!!!

  31. Jogo Bonito, July 6, 2016 at 9:02 a.m.

    This "Fire Paul Gardner Now" character doesn't get it ... It's the opposite, my friend... He's critical because he loves the game. Read his books. Look up his accomplishments and understand that this is a soccer hall of famer that truly loves the game. No offense to SA, but without PG many wouldn't even visit the website. Which is not fair because SA is also HOF worthy

  32. Scot Sutherland, July 14, 2016 at 7:23 p.m.

    Soccer fascinates me partly because it can be either astonishingly beautiful or shockingly ugly. While you can adjust the rules and apply them differently, the game depends upon people who can behave in glorious and inglorious ways in the same minute. Chile knew that they could not repeat the previous tactics. It bother me that Argentina took the bait and stopped doing what made them so compelling in the first match, and resort to diving and sniping.

    PG. I know how much you love the beautiful game, but it might be helpful that the chance for beauty comes with the possibility of the ugly. I'm not sure changing the rules will ever be able to overcome that.

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