Soccer, South American style

Normally, South America’s big soccer tournament, Copa America, isn’t played the same year as the European Championship. But because Euro 2020 was pushed backed to 2021 due to the Wuhan coronavirus, this year the two tournaments took place during the same period.

There are only so many hours in the day and slightly fewer that can be devoted to watching sports. Therefore, I saw very little of Copa American — only the semi-final between Argentina and Colombia and the final between Argentina and Brazil.

Argentina defeated Colombia on penalty kicks and went on to defeat Brazil, 1-0. This is Argentina’s first Copa America triumph since 1993, eleven tournaments ago, which is mind-blowing considering the caliber of players who have worn the pale blue shirt since that time.

I’ll have more to say about Argentina’s past failures and its superstar Lionel Messi in another post. Right now, I want to focus on the differences between what I observed in the two tournaments — the Euros and Copa America.

The Euros were pretty clean by soccer standards. Sure, there was some “professional fouling” — fouls committed to prevent the opposition from breaking away on attack. And, as always, there was a fair amount of diving and rolling around on the ground.

However, the fouling was neither persistent nor overly physical. In the England-Italy final, the referee issued only four yellow cards in the regulation 90 minutes (all to Italy, by the way). In the two semi-finals, both of which went 120 minutes, there were only five yellow cards in total.

By contrast, the referee issued 10 yellow cards in the 90-minute Chile-Argentina clash. In the Brazil-Argentina final, I counted nine.

And what fouls many of them were! When Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini wanted to stop an England break, he pulled on the breakaway player’s shirt. When a Brazilian or an Argentine wanted to accomplish the same end, the method of choice was the cross-body check.

The South American tournament also featured more flair. In the two Copa America matches I saw, Diaz of Colombia, Neymar of Brazil, and Di Maria and (above all) Messi all displayed moments of magic, dribbling past multiple defenders (often only to be chopped down in the end). Such moments were rare at the Euros, where the attacking buildups were slower and more reliant on passing.

There was also a marked difference in the ways players went about their business at the two tournaments. With the exception of Chiellini, the Euro players eschewed over-the-top displays of passion except after scoring or mistakes. The South Americans seemed constantly to be barking or otherwise emoting.

Yeri Mina of Colombia is a good example. As an Everton center back, and a good one, Mina rarely seems fired up in EPL matches. But wearing the Colombian shirt against Argentina, he seemed manic — constantly in someone’s face.

The contrast between the Europeans and the South Americans was particularly noticeable during penalty shootouts. At the Euros, these seemed like solemn affairs. As far as I could tell, there was little talking, probably because everyone was trying so hard to concentrate.

Some goalkeepers employed a little gamesmanship, but it consisted of mild delaying tactics and jumping around before the opponent took his kick.

By contrast, the Colombia-Argentina shootout featured blatant trash talking and lots of it. In fact, Mina and the Argentine goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez of Aston Villa, were still yapping back and forth as the big Colombian approached the ball. (Martinez save the kick.)

South American soccer has always differed from its European counterpart. But with so many South American players plying their trade in Europe these days, you might expect the differences to be shrinking. Certainly, differences in European play from country to country have diminished as leagues like the EPL have taken on a strong international flavor.

But the two Copa America matches I watched, juxtaposed with the Euros, have convinced me that significant differences persist when it comes to the two major footballing continents. In Europe, they play football. In South America, they play football with hot sauce.

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