Copa America focused on intrigue and uncertainty as group stage concludes

The on-field indiscipline of Neymar and the off-the-field indiscretions of Arturto Vidal added another layer of intrigue to a Copa America tournament that hasn't followed the copy book.

SANTIAGO, Chile — 

Great tournaments are made not necessarily by great football, but by great storylines. The first week of the Copa America has certainly obliged on that front. In another world, the struggles of Argentina and Gerardo Martino’s expulsion from the touchline against Uruguay would have been major news. In this tournament, two other issues have dwarfed that story: Neymar’s sending off against Colombia and Arturo Vidal’s arrest on drink-driving charges.

Until Tuesday night, Chile’s experience in the Copa America had been ambivalent. There had been four points and some notable goals, with accompanying concerns about the defending. And then suddenly it got a whole lot worse as Arturo Vidal, who had scored three goals in the tournament, crashed his Ferrari and was arrested for drunk driving.

Vidal escaped without injury, but he found himself in the middle of a massive scandal. It was soon announced that he would remain with the team, but the incident — for all of coach Jorge Sampaoli’s attempts to play it down — is an undoubted distraction. Pragmatism is understandable, but Vidal’s continued presence in the squad seems to go against the Chileans’ code of conduct. “Handcuff me and you’re screwing all of Chile,” Vidal said as he was arrested. That mentality seems to have prevailed, even if he subsequently apologized.

Still, for all Vidal’s travails and its defensive concerns, a draw against Bolivia on Friday will take Chile through. The Bolivians have already exceeded expectations by drawing with Mexico and winning their first competitive game outside of Bolivia in 20 years against Ecuador a few days later. A draw would also guarantee a place in the last eight. Mexico, after two draws, will go through with a win against an Ecuador side needing a win to have a chance of making it as a best third-place side.

Chile may be wracked with doubts, but none of the main contenders have been especially impressive. Brazil’s defeat to Colombia means it must to beat Venezuela to be sure of making it through to the last eight. The loss also raised far greater questions about the nature of the supposed recovery under Dunga since the 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-final. The dependence on Neymar has been staggering, and it will be without him for at least the group finale against Venezuela after his head-butt on Jeison Murillo. The humiliation of Belo Horizonte was so astonishing that it could almost be written off as a freak. If Brazil slump out of the Copa America in the first round, then it would be less eye-catching, but in some ways even more crushing. The hope for Dunga is that with no Neymar, other players will be forced to take responsibility.


Colombia also needs to beat Peru in its last game to make it through. There are serious doubts as to Falcao’s form and fitness, but the introduction of Teo Gutierrez for Carlos Bacca for the win against Brazil made it look a far better-balanced side. The curve is upwards. If Jose Pekerman can resolve the forward issue, then Colombia remains a genuine challenger. Group C remains impossibly tight, though, with all four sides on three points and with a level goal difference. It may yet be Peru and Venezuela who make it through.

Argentina started well against Paraguay, but collapsed in the second half in a state of extraordinary tactical incoherence as the team essentially split into two blocks. Gerardo Martino later admitted he had erred in bringing on Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain to try to force a winner after Paraguay had pulled one back, but the impression left was of a coach at the mercy of greater political forces. Tevez, in particular, is a difficult case: he remains hugely popular among the public and sections of the press, but he has historically been a disruptive figure for the national team. Martino ended Tevez’s three-and-a-half-year exile from the national side, and there have been assurances that, at 31, Tevez is a more mature figure now. The implication of that substitution, though, was that his presence creates an unhelpful dynamic and that Martino may not be strong enough to deal with that.

Argentina was much improved in its second group game, a gritty 1-0 win over Uruguay, but it was still far from at the level it had shown at the World Cup last year (and that, it always seemed then, was below the level this group of players could achieve). A win over Jamaica will probably take Argentina through at the top of the group, but there remain major doubts as to its credentials as potential winners.

Uruguay itself proved as gritty and uncompromising as ever. Oscar Washington Tabarez has said repeatedly throughout his career that he sees no reason to be ashamed by defending. Since he took over Uruguay in 2006, he has produced a series of tough, competent teams. Uruguay started slowly in Argentina four years ago before going on to win the tournament, but, with Edinson Cavani out of form and no Luis Suarez or Diego Forlan to relieve that burden, it’s hard to see Uruguay having the firepower or the creativity to go on to win the tournament. A win over Paraguay would take it through – probably second in the group. A draw would almost certainly mean going through as a third-place team.

Their tenuous perch reflects the state of the competition on the whole. The quality of football may not yet have been exceptional, but this has already been an intriguing tournament. The less-fancied sides are over-performing, the favorites are flawed, and the big names are getting into trouble. This has the makings of the most memorable international tournament in years.