Minnows redefining Copa, South America

BY foxsports • July 18, 2011

He sat down, crossed his arms and adjusted his baseball cap to hide the deep frown. The two lycra-clad hostesses who stood behind him weren’t paying too much attention to what Sergio Markarián was saying. They tried to win the camera's attention, but after the previous night's outburst, the focus was firmly on the Peru coach.

"We're going to get to the stage where we will have to ask opponents how they want us to mark them," exclaimed the 66-year-old Uruguyan, tongue entrenched in cheek. "It's as if teams like Bolivia have to come here and get thrashed!'"

He wasn't backing down. It was the day after he had teetered on the edge of a very public meltdown, having seen his side lose 1-0 to Chile.

"I'm sick of teams being labeled," he had boomed in front of the media in the press conference the night before. "I'm not going to accept it anymore. I'm fed up with the labels journalists and coaches use for other teams.

"It's easy for teams that have top players to say 'we play attacking football,'"' he added sarcastically, before tempering his tone. "You have to do the best you can for the federation that hires you, and for the team you are coaching."

Markarián was calling for parity - both in the media and in the decisions made by referees. He was calling for respect for the jobs being done by coaches, and federations, with limited resources. He was talking about Bolivia, about Peru and about Venezuela. Why should sides that have few players with top club experience come and roll over for the 'big' teams, he argued?

It would be somewhat naïve of coaches and players to expect supporters and the media not to place high expectations on those nations with squad bulging with European-based players, not to mention an impressive cabinet boasting trophies from World Cup victories.

Yet while Brazil and Argentina have to assimilate what are huge upsets and set-backs, for the likes of Peru and Venezuela it is a historic achievement - one which must not be under-estimated.

"Supporters and the media are surprised by what we are achieving," Venezuela midfielder Juan Arango said after the win over Chile, "but that’s because they haven’t seen how we prepared for this tournament. We are not surprised. We are seeing the results of that effort and hard work."

Venezuela coach César Farías said that every single opponent in the Copa America had said how defensively his side had played. Yet although both goals against Chile stemmed from set pieces, in open play they closed down Claudio Borghi’s side relentlessly, and created other chances, too.

"We played well when we needed to play, we dug in when we had to defend, we got lucky when we needed luck and we punished when we needed to punish,’ said Farías. In this tournament alone, Venezuela have doubled their win in Copa America history.

Peru, meanwhile, would have beaten Chile in the group stage had Josepmir Ballón not wasted two clear chances in front of goal. And against Colombia in the quarter final, they punished their rivals for profligacy and took their chances with the game in extra time.

And it is worth noting that Peru reached the semifinals without two of their top players - Werder Bremen striker Claudio Pizarro and Schalke 04's winger Jefferson Farfán – out through injury.

"We have to analyze football differently," said Markarián, "and think about it in a different dimension."

Naturally, the column inches are largely devoted to the scale of the disaster in Argentina and Brazil, both mildly grateful for the other being knocked out at the same stage. But the prevailing editorial line is that they went out because they were poor - which undoubtedly they were – rather than the other teams performing well.

In the case of Peru, they are at the start of a reconstruction job which has as its chief aim qualification for the World Cup in 2014 (and avoiding the humiliation of finishing bottom of the South America group). Venezuela, meanwhile, prepared for this tournament two months in advance, with clubs agreeing to release players in order to train with the national team.

They don’t boast squads full of players who command the six-figure transfer fees, who are the face of multinational sports marketing campaigns, who lift the Champions League trophy and are first choice at Europe’s top clubs. But they are challenging for the Copa America, forcing us to take a fresh look at South American football.