Brazilian football legend Socrates left hospital on September 22 after two stays for stomach haemorrhaging and liver-related problems that could yet necessitate a transplant. Given that doctors admit that the 57-year-old's condition was life-theatening, the relief among friends, family and the better part of 190 million football fans is tangible.
When the trophy was presented after the final of the 2011 Copa América on Sunday July 24, it was to a burst of sky-blue-and-white confetti. That much was not unexpected. Argentina were, after all, the pre-tournament favourites as well as the hosts. But, at the end of a momentous competition full of upsets, they weren't the victors. The colours were instead being blasted skyward to celebrate the victory of the hosts' neighbours and rivals from across the Río de la Plata, Uruguay.
Looking back over the history of the tournament, Uruguay's win isn't a triumph for the little men. It is difficult to paint it as such when it took them one clear of Argentina on to a record 15 Copas. But the fact remains that 18 months ago, when they had just barely scraped qualification for the 2010 World Cup, few would have had Óscar Washington Tabárez's men down as potential winners of that tournament (or, of course, semi-finalists in South Africa).
The story of this year's Copa has not been one of thrilling matches, even if a good number of them were more interesting than the scorelines suggest. It has, though, been one of unexpected results. The third favourites won it, which is not that far out (although the gap in the odds on betting markets between Uruguay and second favourites and holders Brazil was huge), but they beat Paraguay in the final. And a glance at the teams who played in the third-place play-off the previous day confirms the picture of a tournament in which the continent's old order has been emphatically overturned.
That match was a 4-1 win for Peru over a Venezuela side who, in reaching the semi-finals, had won two matches – that's two more than Paraguay, the team who edged them (and Brazil) out via penalty shootouts. Both Peru and Venezuela have come an awfully long way in a very short time. Just before the previous Copa América, which they hosted in 2007, Venezuela were still widely referred to as the continent's whipping boys, and it was difficult to see where improvement was coming from.
They reached the quarter-finals of their own Copa, and months later appointed César Farías as manager. Farías has also taken charge of the youth sides for some games, and his knowledge of the whole national set-up has been a big plus for them.
Peru have, unlike Venezuela, had some great moments in their past, but were coming to this Copa from an even lower point. They finished rock bottom of the South American qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup, with only three wins. Even those who had a feeling this Copa was going to be one for the underdogs never dreamed Peru would go far.
Their experienced Uruguayan manager Sergio Markarián – who managed Tabárez when the latter was a player at Bella Vista – provided perhaps the off-pitch moment of the tournament when he let rip in a press conference after a question about why his side were so defensive. "It's easy to say ‘Oh, we're very attack-minded' when you've got the kind of players they [Chile]have," he said, before exclaiming: "The day has to be close when we [the 'smaller' nations] expect more even standards of refereeing." Peru did open up when they had the chance, and striker Paolo Guerrero actually ended up as the tournament's top scorer courtesy of his hat-trick in the third-place play-off. Tabárez was undoubtedly the best manager of the Copa, but Markarián has surely been the most influential in the long term.
If this really is the end of the old order, what lies ahead for Brazil and Argentina? At the time of writing the latter have just parted company with manager Sergio Batista and Alejandro Sabella, the former Sheffield United and Leeds midfielder, looks the most likely replacement. As someone who has actually worked as a coach and manager before, he would be an improvement on Argentina's last two bosses, Batista and Diego Maradona.
Brazil's situation is trickier to read. They were always treating the Copa more as a chance to build for the future, and Mano Menezes is highly unlikely to lose his job as a result of the quarter-final exit to Paraguay. All the same, having no competitive matches (discounting the Confederations Cup) between now and the World Cup they will host in 2014 will be a problem for the development of a young team.
It could mean there are yet more chances for the previously smaller nations to improve further and close the gap to the more traditional powerhouses. And with the next World Cup final to be held in the Maracanã, scene of their greatest triumph in 1950, new South American champions Uruguay might be forgiven for hoping they will be riding the wave of that momentum.
From WSC 295 September 2011
The new season in Brazil kicked off in January with an unusual sight: four of the country's biggest stars over the last two decades (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho) were playing for local clubs. Admittedly this curious spectacle did not last long. Corinthians' cataclysmic exit from the Copa Libertadores saw Roberto Carlos fleeing to another big pay day in Russian football and Ronaldo bringing forward his retirement.
Fluminense's Brazilian National Championship success in 2010 was a remarkable turnaround by any standards. In October 2009 the club was reckoned to be heading for Serie B but a spectacular series of victories saved them, creating the platform for a tilt at the top in 2010. Following the end of the season in December the Brazilian FA (CBF) revised the status of previous championships, so Fluminense were also declared "national champions" for 1970 (the national competition only started officially in 1971).
The job description of manager in Argentina is far removed from the role in European football. Joel Richards explains why this is causing problems for some of the South American clubs
Carlos Bianchi walked in to rousing applause. Known as "the Viceroy", the most successful coach in Boca Juniors history was back at the Bombonera and the press room was packed. Yet despite his nine trophies in five years at Boca, Bianchi was not being unveiled as the new coach. In his third spell at the club, he would help out his former team-mate and current coach Carlos Ischia, but from behind the scenes. He would be el manager.
While some stadiums are shut, others are furiously debated. Robert Shaw reports on problematic preparations for 2014
With the Homeless World Cup played in September in Brazil some of the country's clubs might have felt entitled to stage their own version. The stadium-building and renovation programme for the 2014 World Cup has already left several clubs without a home ground as work begins in earnest to prepare the 12 venues.
Nick Dorrington wonders whether the return of a legendary figure will help to lift Columbian football from the doldrums
It is hard to view Colombia's inability to qualify for the last three World Cups as anything other than a failure on behalf of the Colombian Football Federation (FCF) considering the popularity of football in South America's second most populous nation. In the appointment of former national team coach Francisco Maturana to oversee the development of the country's football the FCF believes it has a man capable of making the necessary changes to ensure more regular participation in future tournaments.
There's a very large reputation to live up to in Buenos Aires. Sam Kelly reports on the candidates to follow a national hero
How do you find a replacement for God? It’s a question Argentines have been pondering since July 27, when it was confirmed by the Argentine Football Association (AFA) that Diego Maradona wouldn’t be offered a new contract as national team manager to replace the one that had expired four weeks earlier. The main candidates to step into the limelight were former Sheffield Utd and Leeds midfielder Alejandro Sabella, Diego Simeone and youth team coach Sergio Batista.
Simon Hart discusses the history behind 2010's most unique pre-season friendly: Everton v Everton
Forget the money-spinning Emirates Cup, it was Goodison Park that hosted the summer’s most meaningful pre-season friendly, Everton v Everton, as the Merseyside club faced their Chilean namesakes for the first time on August 4. The unique occasion drew a 25,934 crowd – more than the annual pre-season fundraiser for the club’s former players’ foundation usually attracts. Those present witnessed some wonderful quirks, not least the sight of the Park End scoreboard reading Everton 0, Everton 0, at least until the home team’s two unanswered second-half goals.
Greg Norman explains why both political and sporting reforms are needed in South America's poorest country
Despite playing at La Paz’s atmospheric Estadio Hernando Siles, the world’s highest international venue, the national team is, at 67, the lowest ranked South American side. Meanwhile, a league whose second most successful team in history is called The Strongest is, unsurprisingly, statistically the continent’s weakest in recent years. The last 16 of this year’s Copa Libertadores featured teams from eight different countries, yet Bolivian teams Bolívar and Blooming finished bottom of their groups with five points between them.