A strong-looking Argentina are set to play archrival Brazil's
second-best team in the Copa America final Sunday in Maracaibo,
Argentina is playing the tournament with its first-choice squad. The
decision paid early dividends, as the Argentinians were the only team to
win all three first-round games, dominating group play in great style.
Billed from the start as the favourites to take the title, the
Argentinians under coach Alfio Basile got used to working hard in the
first halves of their matches before taking charge behind the
irresistable force of an attack led in turns by Lionel Messi, Juan Roman
Riquelme and Hernan Crespo.
"The good thing is that (Argentina) has a style of play, that it
respects that," Riquelme said after qualifying for the final.
Brazil have written a very different story in this Copa America even
before they travelled to Venezuela. Superstars Ronaldinho and Kaka opted
out of the tournament to rest after a long European season, leaving
coach Carlos Dunga the daunting task of defending the title with a B
Brazil lost in their opening match to Mexico and were unconvincing
throughout the first round, when only Real Madrid striker Robinho stood
The quarter-finals provided a glimmer of possibilities with a 6-0
thrashing of Chile, but the five-time world champions were stiffly
challenged again in the semi-finals. Uruguay held the Brazilians to a
2-2 draw and were within one goal of victory in the penalty shootout
before Brazil made it through.
"The Copa America was never easy for Brazil," said Dunga after the
semi-final, seeming to excuse the near-disaster.
The question of who left their biggest guns at home has even led to a
bit of gamesmanship leading up to the Copa final.
On Friday, Argentine midfielder Esteban Cambiasso actually defended the
Brazilian squad in Venezuela against the widespread slights about being
their country's second best.
"To think just about Ronaldinho, Kaka, etcetera, seems to us like a lack
of respect for the rest of the Brazilian players," Cambiasso said in
Maracaibo. "They did not pick the others off the street. They are
footballers who play in big teams too."
But he insisted that he "cannot imagine" losing to the Brazilians on
Meanwhile, Dunga offered a bow to Argentina's performance in the first
three rounds, whether to lower expectations or fuel an underdog spirit
in his own team.
"Argentina is the favourite given what it has done so far, without a
doubt," he said. "But Brazil has to play with the obligation of winning."
Argentina and Brazil have been playing in Venezuela under the heavy
weight of their World Cup disappointments last year in Germany and the
difficult task of regaining the support of their own fans.
"Brazilians are not going to be happy with the national team even if we
win the title," one commentator noted Wednesday on Brazilian television.
The online edition of Clarin, neighbouring Argentina's largest newspaper,
had a cheerier outlook about their countrymen, declaring:
"The national team reached the final in pure luxury."
In that sense, Argentina have already won the Copa America.
As for actually lifting the trophy on Sunday, all bets are off.
"We know we both start from scratch with the same numbers, and we have
to maintain the same style of play," said Argentina keeper Roberto
The match is a sort of deja vu, because the titans of South American
football have clashed nine times in the finals of the Copa America, the
world's oldest competition of national teams, held since 1916.
Argentina won the first eight meetings before losing to Brazil in 2004
in Peru, the last Copa. The defeat was particularly painful, with Brazil
winning in a penalty shootout only after scoring a tying goal in injury
Argentina holds 14 Copa America titles to Brazil's seven, but the
Brazilians have been catching up with three of the last four trophies.
Of course, a clash between Argentina and Brazil is always special, a
football classic in any circumstances. The names of players on the pitch
and the teams' immediate record traditionally come second to the
confrontation of colours and ideals of football.
"Playing Brazil (in the final) is the best," Basile said in no uncertain
This time, Messi, Riquelme and Carlos Tevez himself appear to trump the
lonely Robinho for "jogo bonito." And Argentine players appear set to
enjoy the final in the knowledge that their performances in Venezuela
have been outstanding.
"We have achieved the minimum objective, which was to get to the final,"
said Argentine captain Roberto Ayala. "Now, the most beautiful part lies
In the Brazilian camp, however, things are less bucolic. After
qualifying for the final, Dunga wasted no time repeating that "in
football the only thing that matters is winning."
Robinho agreed: "If we do not win the tournament, this (semi-final)
triumph will be worth nothing."