SUNDERLAND, England – A fresh breath of excitement was blown into the Copa America last night as a young Costa Rica side got the better of a second half every bit as unexpected as it was thrilling, beating Bolivia 2-0 in Jujuy.
Following an opening 45 minutes desperately devoid of quality, the teams headed into the halftime break goalless in what was looking like another false start for a tournament that had produced just eight goals in seven games; five of which arrived from set-pieces.
Following the climax of the European season, all eyes turned to South America this month for what neutrals hoped would be a free-flowing, attacking carnival starring South America's finest soccer stars. But with the first four matches producing just three goals, and insipid performances from favourites Argentina and Brazil, many appeared to be losing patience. Listening to radio phone-ins and perusing the countless blogs and daily newspapers from around the world, there seemed a budding disillusionment with the brand of football on show in Argentina this past week.
The approach of many of the teams at the tournament has possibly been more conservative than expected, with the overwhelming majority of matches having featured one team content to sit back and contain; only in Chile's 2-1 victory over Mexico and Uruguay's draw with Peru did we see contests in which both teams showed a real desire to win. What seems to have irked the watching public so much, however, ostensibly stems from a misconception that South American football is intrinsically more attacking.
Perhaps the biggest perpetuator of the myth is the all-conquering Brazil side of 1970, heralded by most as the greatest team in international soccer history. For the first time, the game was beamed live across the globe in glorious Mário Zagallo's team inspired an entire generation with their brand of Futebol Arte. Their impression would be lasting, leaving "Brazil" - in football parlance - a Saussurean signifier for the 'beautiful game'.
Mario Zagallo, the coach for Brazil, and the team trainer Admillo Chirol talking with the team in training before the start of the 1974 FIFA World Cup in June 1974. (Photo by Don Morley/Getty Images)
"Brazil played football worthy of her people's yearning for celebration and craving for beauty," wrote Eduardo Galeano of their 4-1 victory over Italy in the final. But it would be a ne plus ultra Brazil is yet to replicate. Four years later in West Germany, missing the likes of Pele, Gerson, Tostão, and Carlos Alberto, Brazil would be outplayed and outrun by Johan Cruyff's Netherlands before losing the third place playoff to Poland.
It was 12 years before Brazil would see its next great team, only for Paolo Rossi's hat trick in Spain to suggest that Zico and Socrates merely represented a quixotic philosophy that could no longer guarantee success. And even when, in 2002, Luiz Felipe Scolari unleashed the three R's - Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo - he quickly had a rethink following the group stage, replacing attacking midfielder Juninho Paulista with the more dependable Kleberson.
Penarol's goalie Carlos Sosa (green jersey) jumps to catch the ball during their Libertadores Cup match with Internacional on May 4, 2011 at Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (AFP PHOTO/Jefferson BERNARDES)
South America has long been a hotbed for pragmatic coaches. A quick glance at the last few years on the continent provides a number of high profile examples of tactics valuing substance over style. Peñarol's run to the Copa Libertadores final this year was built on a tight, compact base designed to neutralize its opposition before springing the counterattack. Dunga's Brazil topped the last round of World Cup qualifying exhibiting a similar contrivance. Muricy Ramalho has won four out of the last five Brazilian championships with much the same approach, placing significant focus on set-pieces; as did Alejandro Sabella, who led Estudiantes to a Copa Libertadores and the Argentinian league title.
Defensive tactics are anything but an incongruity in South American soccer, so what we've seen from the Copa should come as no huge surprise. Moreover, the fact that only four of the twelve sides will be eliminated from the group stage has played a part in the cautious approach taken to the opening round of fixtures, with many coaches preferring not to risk a defeat that would leave them playing catch-up after just one game.
Last night, however, with a second half that produced two red cards, two goals, a penalty, and a standout performance from a relative unknown in Costa Rica's Joel Campbell, Costa Rica and Bolivia may finally have given the neutral soccer fans their first genuine water cooler moment. Whatever the game lacked in quality, the second 45 minutes more than made up for in spectacle.
And tonight the torch will be passed to Chile and Uruguay, as for the first time in this year's competition two pre-tournament favourites will face-off. With Oscar Tabarez and Claudio Borghi likely to persist with their attacking intents, the Copa might just be set to receive the kick-start it so desperately needs in order to retain the worldwide television audience.