Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela. It is not the semi-final line-up that the organisers, sponsors or many onlookers would have envisaged.
The hosts, Argentina, have gone. So too the sights and sounds of Brazilian flair. Even Chile, the neutral’s favourite for their kamikaze style of attacking play, have been eliminated.
But, one endearing quality of the 2011 Copa America remains, its unpredictability.
An unpredictability that stems from a strength in-depth that has been threatening to produce a tournament like this for the past decade. Ever since the inception of a marathon 18-game long World Cup qualifying campaign that has guaranteed the smaller nations regular competitive football, the traditional powerhouses of the region have faced a considerably greater challenge.
This depth was best evidenced by Uruguay’s fantastic run at last summer’s World Cup. La Celeste returned from South Africa placed as the fourth best side in the world. Yet, during the two-year long qualification campaign they had finished as the fifth best side in South America.
Uruguay’s re-establishment as one of world football’s major powers, however, has at least been one of the more expected features of this tournament. It may come as a surprise to those more familiar with the duopoly of Argentina and Brazil to learn that should Uruguay go on to lift the Copa on Sunday they would become its most frequent winners, one ahead of Argentina and with seven more than Brazil.
A golden generation spearheaded by Diego Forlan know though that this may be their final chance at a major trophy. The fact that they go into tonight’s semi-final against Peru as prohibitive favourites comes as no reassurance after a weekend of quarter-finals in which all four favoured sides were eliminated.
Uruguay’s encounter with Argentina was the highlight of those four ties but could serve as a physical and mental burden to Oscar Washington Tabarez’s troops this evening. Although Peru also had to go to extra-time to defeat Colombia 2-0 on Saturday, that match was played at a much slower-tempo than the battle of River Plate, not to mention the fact that Uruguay played over 80 minutes with 10 men.
Emotional fatigue could also be a factor. After the high of beating their nearest and dearest rivals on their home patch it will require a few calm heads to keep Uruguayan feet on the ground for a semi-final only 72 hours later.
There is also the added complication of going up against one of their fellow countrymen in Sergio Markarián, the Uruguayan coach who has transformed Peru’s fortunes in little over a year in charge. Much was made of Markarián’s appointment when he was made the third highest paid coach in South America, behind only the salaries of Brazil’s Mano Menezes and then Chile manager Marcelo Bielsa. For a country still ranked as one of the poorest on the continent, the $760,000 wage seemed more than a little excessive.
Yet, Markarián’s mixture of bravado and brilliance has more than paid its way as the side who finished bottom of World Cup qualifying have now made it to their first semi-final in 14 years.
Above all, Markarián has managed to tighten Peru’s defence with a midfield three sitting very deep to block any space between the lines, a tactic that worked well against Uruguay when the pair drew 1-1 in their first game of the competition two weeks ago.
Due to the bizarre format and number of upsets so far, the other semi-finalists, Paraguay and Venezuela, have also met previously. Only a week ago, in arguably the game of the tournament, Venezuela came from 3-1 down with less than a minute of normal time remaining to draw 3-3.
Venezuela’s rise to prominence has been the best example of how the redeveloped World Cup qualifying format has benefited the smaller countries. La Vinotinto (known for their burgundy shirts than a great production of red wine) have still won fewer Copa America games in their history than they have Miss World contests, but their potential has been apparent for some time now.
When hosting the competition four years ago they qualified for the quarter-finals for the first time and a sprinkling of young players, such as Malaga’s Salomón Rondón and Tomás Rincón of Hamburg, have successfully made the transition to European football.
Their opponents, Paraguay, find themselves in the strange position of making the semi-finals without having won a game in open play. Three draws in the group stages were enough to qualify as the second best third-placed side and their passage through the quarter-final was sealed when Brazil missed all four of their penalties in a display of stunning inaccuracy from 12 yards that even England would have been proud of.
Yet, much like Uruguay, this is a golden opportunity to mark a special era in Paraguayan football with only their third ever major trophy. And as if they need any extra incentive, well-known cheerleader and model Larissa Riquelme is doing her bit.
“If Paraguay win the Copa America then I shall pose nude on the pitch,” she said before the competition began.
Judging by Brazil’s penalties it appears that is a sight not only Paraguayans want to see.
Written by Kieran Canning