NEW YORK – Copa America ended with a bang - eight goals in the final two games - but were it not for Paolo Guerrero's hat trick or Diego Forlán's first goals for his country in over a year, we'd have been left with the lowest scoring Copa America in history.
Peru secured third place with a 4-1 win over Venezuela while Forlán's brace, together with Luis Suárez' opening goal, handed Uruguay the title with a 3-0 win over Paraguay. Those goals bumped the tournament's total to 54 in 26 games, but as Opta point out, with an average of 2.08 goals per game, only the 1922 tournament in Brazil had a lower goal average (2 per game).
This statistic points us to two of the strongest characteristics of this year's competition. On one hand, individual players failed to live up to expectations, while on the other, teams usually treated as cannon-fodder showed marked improvement.
Where the stars never came out
As an illustration of the first characteristic, look no further than hosts Argentina and the perennial favorites Brazil, nations whose two prized assets failed to provide the spark that their teams (and indeed, the tournament) needed. Leo Messi has now gone 16 competitive matches without a goal for his country, and finding a system in which he can recreate his electric Barcelona form is becoming a matter of urgency.
Neymar, meanwhile, was taken apart on forums for his individualistic displays. His two goals won't overshadow the feeling that talk of $65 million move is vastly inflated, and although Neymar no doubt has a spectacular future, this was far from being the tournament that definitively puts him on the global map.
Neymar's two Copa America goals came in the same match, leaving him silent in three of Brazil's four tournament games. (Photo: AFP PHOTO / DANIEL GARCIA)
Elsewhere, Alexis Sanchez only found the net once and couldn't guide Chile to a semifinal place despite the path to the final seemingly cleared after Brazil and Argentina lost in the quarterfinals. And what of Radamel Falcao? By no means was it a poor tournament for the Porto striker, but his missed penalty in the quarterfinal against Peru is a blemish on his record.
So just how is it that some of the top names in world football failed to reproduce their top form in Argentina?
Broadly speaking, the under-whelming performances are a result of vast improvements in other teams.
A region without minnows
The South American teams that failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup were Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru. All of these teams showed positive signs in the Copa America; in particular, Peru and Venezuela, who reached the semifinal stage.
Clearly, Copa has served as a prelude to what should be an extremely tough South American qualifying stage for the next World Cup. Beyond the development seen with Peru and Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador showed promise despite being seen out at group stage, and with the altitude in La Paz (3,640 meters) and Quito (2,950 meters), they will continue to make life very difficult for visitors.
Perhaps as much as any player, Uruguay head coach Óscar Tabárez was the star of Copa America. (Photo: AFP PHOTO/Eitan Abramovich)
But taking into consideration the improvement in these teams (plus the finalists Uruguay and Paraguay), there is another trend. Óscar Tabárez put an official name to it when he took over Uruguay for a second time in 2006: Institutionalization. Both Uruguay and Paraguay have stuck by the same coach, Tabárez and Gerardo Martino, for five years. Staying with a coach is not, per se, the answer to turning defeats into victories, but clearly a coherent plan, set out by the FA who name a coach they trust and look beyond a potentially negative one-off results reaps rewards.
In the case of Peru and Venezuela, the rhetoric is also one of progress and development. Both Sergio Markarían and Cesar Farías talk about the coming years, not months. Both their respective federations have taken the steps to plan for the medium term as an antidote to underachievement. The results in the Copa America vindicate those steps.
While Argentina saw some $90 million investment in building or refurbishing a number of stadiums across the country, perhaps the ultimate legacy of the 2011 Copa America is one which is yet to be confirmed - a change in format. Rumors in the press suggest a brand new tournament will be agreed between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF to make the competition a true Americas cup. It would avoid the situation where Mexico and Costa Rica send youth teams. A full-strength Mexico - not to mention USA, too - would strengthen the tournament while expanding the format to avoid the situation where eight out of 12 teams qualify for the knock-out phase.