The 1997 Copa America was, well, breathtaking. Brian Homewood tells the story of the tournament

The organization was weird, the refereeing was at best inept and the helping hand given to the host nation was outrageous, but it was still better than watching the Czech Republic and France playing to a goalless draw after extra time.

The 1997 Copa America ended with Brazil overcoming host nation Bolivia 3-1 in a dramatic final to win the competition for a surprisingly modest fifth time. It was something of a shock result as nobody had expected that Bolivia could be beaten, thanks to their innovative tactic of stopping their opponents from breathing.

The home team played all of their games in the Hernando Siles stadium in La Paz, which lies 12,500 feet above sea level (Mexico City, which England tend to associate with altitude, is a mere 7,000 feet). The air is so thin that some airlines lower the oxygen masks for their passengers when they land at the airport, situated in a township appropriately named El Alto (the high place). Visitors are advised to lie down for the first half day and avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy food. Playing 90 minutes of football is definitely not recommended.

FIFA guarantees visiting teams 10 days to adapt to the conditions before World Cup qualifiers in La Paz (although 21 days is generally considered necessary for complete adaptation) but the Copa America organizers allowed no such luxuries. Bolivia’s opponents were all forced to play in La Paz just 72 hours after finishing games in other, lower venues. They were not even able to drink coca tea, the popular and legal local remedy for soroche (acute mountain sickness), which many air travellers suffer on arrival. A Brazilian player who drank a cup before a World Cup qualifier in 1993 failed a doping test after traces of cocaine were found. In the light of all this it has to be said that a home win would have had a hollow ring to it. Flavio Conceicao, a black Brazilian substituted during the second half of the final, commented: “I must have been as white as Michael Jackson.”

The altitude was not the only oddity to anyone expecting something resembling Euro ’96. Half the countries taking part brought second string teams to avoid having their players crushed by a bloated fixture list. Two years ago the individual South American federations, backed by FIFA, had a brainwave for the continent’s World Cup qualifying competition: throw all the nine countries (Brazil are exempt as holders) into the same group and play each other twice. It is certainly fairer than Europe’s crazy system and it gives South American fans a chance to see their idols play occasionally rather than just watching them with their European clubs on the box. But it was a nightmare for the South American Confederation, who were suddenly forced to squeeze a tournament they had planned ten years ago in between the qualifying matches.

The contest began with the finishing touches still being put to many of the stadia and there was an inauspicious start when Chile’s team refused to take part in the opening ceremony because the country’s flag was missing its large white star. The incident brought protests from the government in Santiago, where it was interpreted as a deliberate mistake. The two countries are not on the best of terms: they continue to dispute a few square miles of bleak, windswept high altitude desert and anyone who enters Chile from Bolivia is subjected to a bureaucratic hell. The Bolivians also still resent losing their only outlet to the sea following a war in the last century (despite now being landlocked, Bolivia still maintains a navy which consists of a few cabin cruisers chugging around Lake Titicaca).

The Chileans were equally miffed to find no hot water in their dressing room after losing their first game to Paraguay. The players were forced to take cold showers on a night where, due to the high altitude of Cochabamba (8,000 feet), temperatures were not much above freezing (but they get into the 80s during the day).

It was probably just as well, therefore, that there was no large contingent of Chilean supporters in the stadium. Travelling fans are not common in the Copa America. Only a handful of South Americans can afford to fly and the alternatives are daunting. A Venezuelan fan wanting to watch his team play their first round games in the colonial city of Sucre would face at least one week’s solid bus travel from Caracas, passing through four countries on the way.

 In spite of the difficulties in travelling to watch games in a country where only 10% of the roads are asphalted and the rest are washed out in the wet season, the tournament still made more interesting viewing than last year’s European equivalent. In terms of goals scored it was not that much of an improvement, but at least when South American teams get bogged down in midfield they do it in some style.

Colombia rarely look like scoring, but their passing is so intricate and their ball skills are so good that it is almost impossible to get bored watching them. Paraguay, too, are rarely dull, thanks to the antics of their goalkeeper and captain, Jose Luis Chilavert. In the quarter-final defeat by Brazil, he took two free kicks on the edge of the Brazil penalty area, came 30 yards out of his goal and dribbled around Brazil’s midfielder Leonardo, then saved a penalty taken by wonderboy Ronaldo.

Note also that when the European championships begin, the media invariably begin a fruitless search for a team they can label “the Brazil of Europe”, presumably to make up for the absence of the real thing. (Portugal and Croatia seemed the favourite candidates at Euro 96 but this required some stretching of the imagination.) Nobody in Bolivia, however, was looking for a team they could dub the “Germany of South America”.

The pleasant surprises included Ecuador, Mexico and Peru. The Mexicans, who eventually succumbed 3-1 in La Paz in their semi-final even won a penalty shoot-out but only after coming across a team with even weaker nerves than themselves. Mexico, whose 1986 and 1994 World Cup efforts ended with spectacular shoot-out flops against Germany and Bulgaria, kept up their average of missing two attempts but this time. instead of ice-cool Europeans, they were facing Ecuador, who missed three.

Argentina arrived in a sulky mood, never looked interested and certainly did not see the funny side when they were the victims of an attempt to move the goalposts. Having finished second in their first round group, Argentina were supposed to play their quarter- final against the second-placed team in group B in Sucre, which at 2,700 metres above sea level is roughly the same height as their first round venue Cochabamba.

Hours earlier, however, and unbeknown to Argentina, the organizers had announced that if Bolivia turned out to be their quarter-final opponents, the match would be switched to La Paz.

Argentina threatened to withdraw from the tournament but a crisis was inadvertently stopped by the hosts. who finished top of group B. Instead, Argentina went on to disgrace themselves in a 2-1 quarter-final defeat by Peru, in which they had three players sent off, two of them following a fight which began because the Peruvian goalkeeper would not give them the ball back after they had converted a penalty.

Peru themselves repeated their 1978 World Cup performance – when initially they played above themselves but ended by losing 6-0 to Argentina – by undoing all their previous good work in a 7-0 defeat by Brazil in the semi-finals. The Brazilians, naturally, were way above everyone else, as they scored 21 goals on their way to winning all six games. This, however, was not enough to satisfy their excitable contingent of around 400 reporters, plus the critics back home, who were apparently unhappy that the team let in three goals along the way.

Manager Mario Zagallo, a prickly character who is intensely proud of his record in the game, gave his curriculum vitae as his standard response when interviewed. “Results don’t lie,” he repeated at almost every press conference, followed by: “I’m four times champion of the world. I was born with victory by my side.” (Zagallo won the World Cup as a player in 1958 and 1962, as Brazil manager in 1970, and as assistant manager in 1994. He never tires of reminding us.)

On one occasion he told the media: “Let them keep on criticizing me because it brings me luck. Brazil are going to be five-times champions with ZA—GA—LLO.” Asked by an Argentinian reporter if he was irritable, he replied: “Yes, I am. And I was also irritable in 1958, I was irritable in 1962...” and so on. At the end of the final, millions of Brazilian viewers were treated to the sight of Zagallo, red in the face and scarcely able to breath, rushing up to the television cameras, pointing his finger at them and shouting: “Now you’re going to have to swallow me.”

From WSC 126 August 1997. What was happening this month

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