We’re through the first round of group stage games in the 2019 Copa América, and there’s really only one thing we know for sure: this tournament is total ass. The first six matches have been plagued by blowouts, VAR nonsense, and all the usual CONMEBOL-flavored bullshit. This isn’t a bug, but rather a feature; Copa América always has some of the worst talent disparities of any major tournament (not counting the Gold Cup here, which is its own nightmare), and there’s a reason South American matches are, ahem, renowned for their choppiness: players don’t hold back on the crunching tackles, and referees are more than willing to let them do it.
Perhaps the best example of this stilted tournament so far was its second match. Venezuela and Peru are both in the mid-tier of South American sides: not quite good enough to truly contend for the trophy against Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina (more on them shortly, because they also might not be good enough), but not as bad as Paraguay or Bolivia, or Asian invitees Qatar and Japan.
And yet, when they collided against each other on Saturday, both sides forgot how to put together attacking moves, choosing instead to hoof long balls to Salomón Rondón and Paolo Guerrero, respectively. To their credit, Peru did a bit more in attack, and actually scored twice, only for both goals to be rightfully (and endlessly) reviewed and taken away by VAR. Though both teams had double digit shots and five each on target, only Venezuela’s keeper and possible superhero Wuilker Faríñez had to put in any acrobatics to keep the eventual 0-0 draw intact.
Elsewhere, we’ve already had three blowouts by the score of 3-0 or worse. The first match of the tournament was always destined to end that way: Brazil is the best team on the continent, even without the injured Neymar, and Bolivia is the worst when they are not playing in the high altitude of their home pitches (the tournament is in Brazil this year). Maligned Barcelona attacker Philippe Coutinho must feel nice after scoring a brace in that game, but there was not much excitement to kick off the tournament, save for Everton Soares’s gorgeous solo goal to go up 3-0.
Uruguay and Chile both won by the tallies of 4-0 in dull affairs, against a red-carded Ecuador and a B-team Japan. Uruguay is still plenty good, even as its key players all age, while Chile’s also-aging golden generation put in a good shift against a Japanese squad that has exactly eight players playing in Europe, out of 23. Though it took Chile until the 41st minute to break the deadlock, they were never really threatened on the other end, controlling 56 percent of the possession and only allowing three shots on target to the invitees.
Paraguay-Qatar (yes, Qatar was also invited, ostensibly because they won the 2019 Asian Cup, but more because they are Qatar and have money) was the most evenly matched game so far, simply by virtue of both team’s defenses being pretty terrible; both of these teams will be severe underdogs against Argentina and Colombia, respectively.
And hey, speaking of those two, the so-called elites of the tournament (non-Brazil division) put on a stinker of their own in the most anticipated match of the first round of games. Let’s not bag on Colombia too badly, despite their minimal possession and only two shots on target; at least they fucking scored those, the first one being an unstoppable wondergoal from Roger Martínez to open up the scoring in the 71st minute, before Atalanta’s Duván Zapata got on the end of a beautiful Jefferson Lerma cross to double the lead 15 minutes later.
Argentina, though. Woof. Every tournament for the Albiceleste serves as an exhausting referendum on Lionel Messi’s ability to lead his country to a title, disregarding the three finals he carried them to (alongside Javier Mascherano, who is finally, thankfully, not on the team) between 2014 and 2016. Or that they would have won one, or two, or all three of those if Gonzalo Higuaín didn’t exist. In the minds of soccer fans, particularly the “count the rings” contingent, if Messi never wins even a Copa América with his country, he will be considered as someone who never reached his full potential. People are saying that about Messi.
If you need an example for why he hasn’t been able to win a trophy, go back and watch that Colombia match (or don’t, because it was real bad and disheartening). At all times, it seemed like four Colombians were converging on Messi, forcing him to pass backwards more than he’d surely like. Credit to Colombian midfielder Wílmar Barrios, who was the Messi stopper for the day, not letting Argentina’s number 10 get any breathing room. Of course, if Messi had good teammates or a good coach, there could be adjustments made from the attention he received. Spoiler: there weren’t.
Argentina’s midfield is bad, save for Giovani Lo Celso, who was for some reason shunted off to the right of the midfield, away from the central position he plays in for club Real Betis. Sergio Agüero, that man I once called the greatest Premier League scorer ever, forgets how to do anything when he dons the national team jersey, as do Nicolás Otamendi and Ángel Di María. New Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni also left Paulo Dybala and Lautaro Martínez on the bench, preferring to sub on Matías Suárez, a veteran journeyman with just four international caps.
We could go on and on about Argentina’s failures, but their disjointed attacking and tactical ineptitude is a pretty good simulacrum for the tournament as a whole. Normally, Copa América finds some shine amongst all the muck, particularly when we get to the knockout rounds. But aside from Brazil and Uruguay, no one seems up to the task to wow the world and bring home the trophy in entertaining fashion; I’ll save my praise for Colombia after they play a game where they don’t only create two chances, and Chile should probably face off against a real team before they can be considered as contenders to win their third straight Copa in a row. The second round of games doesn’t seem particularly promising in terms of upping the intensity or match quality, either; the most appealing match is probably Argentina-Paraguay, but mostly to see if and how the former will shit the bed once again.
The small team pool for South America, and the baffling decision to not invite better and more regionally-appropriate sides (say, Mexico or Costa Rica, who both could send a B-team that would still be more entertaining than Japan or Qatar) really hurts this tournament’s ability to put on a fun group stage. One can only hope that once the scrubs are culled and the final eight teams—yes, eight of these 12 teams advance because nothing means anything, but at least we’ll get rid of Bolivia, Japan, and probably Qatar and Ecuador—the quality of play will improve. It can’t get much worse.