Cash from chaos

Even with Ronaldo in one of his funny moods, Brazil rarely needed to break sweat to retain their South American title in Paraguay as Sam Wallace reports

At either end of the Defensores Del Chacos ground in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, stood enormous models of Budweiser cans which, at set in­tervals, would start to gyrate. Occasionally, a plastic bag thrown from the crowd behind the goal would sail over the cans, jettisoning in flight its cargo of urine. The irony was hard to ignore. No amount of expensive advertising ever quite managed to sanitise a gloriously chaotic Copa America 1999.

South America lends itself rather well to the romanticised views of football that certain soft drinks man­ufacturers would have us believe. The Copa America should form a central plank of these idealised notions of poor favella kids coming back from their rich European clubs to contest the oldest continental com­petition in the world.

The reality, of course, is very different. International football in South America suffers from the cul­ture of absenteeism like none other. Juan Sebastian Veron, Gabriel Batistuta and Fernando Redondo all de­cided they were too tired or too unfit to play for Arg­entina. Leonardo gave the Copa a miss because Brazil’s coach Wanderley Luxemburgo wouldn’t make him captain. Faustino Asprilla’s knee swelled up on the flight to Paraguay so he got on the next plane back home to Colombia.

In fact, the Copa’s problems had started four months ago when Paraguay’s vice president, Luis Maria Arg­ana, was shot dead in Asunción by gunmen believed to be working on behalf of the previous president, Raul Cubas, and his ally General Lino Oviedo. After two days of rioting in the centre of the capital between students and the military, Cubas and Oviedo went into exile and the future of the tournament was thrown into doubt.

Despite the hint of danger that surrounded it and the glamour provided by the stars who did show up, the Copa’s currency as a football tournament remains difficult to evaluate. The 1997 finals in Bolivia were rendered fairly meaningless by the debilitating effects of altitude sickness on the players. The hosts, beaten by Brazil in the final, went out in the first round in Paraguay. In 1999, nothing short of victory was acceptable for an almost full-strength Brazilian side.

The 3 de Febrero stadium in Ciudad del Este, where Brazil played all their games apart from the fin­al, was a keen reminder to their European-based stars of what they had left behind. Located in the middle of a sea of black gravel and patrolled by eager young men with guns, its raw concrete and uncovered metal re­inforcements stood as a testament to the desperate circumstances in which Paraguay had staged the tournament. Outside, raw police recruits, armed to the teeth, insisted on squeezing tubes of sun block to test for hidden weapons but seemed un­able to pre­vent arsenals of fire­works and flares from get­ting into the ground.

And beyond all this there was still the football. Foreign jour­nalists, an­ticipating a muggy, enveloping heat spent the first round hugging their laptops for warmth in the deadening cold of a Paraguayan winter. With games played as double headers in the same stadium there was always the chance that a poor game would be followed by a classic and so it proved. After a brutal match between Uruguay and Ecuador, came Argentina versus Colombia which fea­tured five penalties and two sendings-off. The game reached a giddy climax when Argentina’s coach, Mar­celo Bielsa, suffered the double ignominy of being dismissed by the referee and then escorted to the tunnel by two members of a military marching band from Panama.

The press fell hungrily on the tournament’s juiciest story, Martin Palermo’s three extraordinary missed penalties against Colombia. Palermo, nicknamed, el Loco for his occasional tendency to celebrate goals by simulating sex, was fixed in the cross-hairs. “La culpa es del Loco” (It’s all his fault) was the sympathetic view of El Grafico, Argentina’s leading sport magazine.

Palermo, a Boca Juniors player, had finished the Argentinian season as top scorer and there was no shortage of famous South Americans to rally round him. “Palermo shouldn’t have taken the third one. I certainly know how he feels,” offered Arsenal’s Nelson Vivas, somewhat plaintively. “I’m with Palermo to the death,” added Diego Maradona, ominously. And, proving that English football has at least taught him the art of incisive comment, Hamilton Ricard ob­served that “You have to give him credit for taking the third penalty even when he had missed the others.” Then again, Ricard had missed a spot kick of his own in the same game.

But not even Palermo’s penalties could keep the spotlight from Brazil and, more specifically, Ronaldo, who was surrounded by a clutch of willing lieutenants in Alex, Amoruso and Ronaldinho, but was rarely able to make use of their service. Eventually it was the tough core of the midfield, Flavio Conceicao, Emerson and Zé Rob­erto, combining with the brilliant Rivaldo, who propelled Brazil to the title.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, was left to con­centrate on the basics of modern day foot­ball stardom. “Every woman pictured with me is described as my new girlfriend,” he grumbled. “I must have had almost 20 girl­friends during the Copa alone.” He also had to deal with alle­gations that he left the stadium early after being substituted in the semi-final against Mexico and that he went on an £11,000 shop­ping spree in the tax-free city of Ciudad del Este. For those of us who tried to find some­thing nice to take home in Ciudad this seems unlikely, unless Ronaldo has a passion for pocket calculators and fake Middlesbrough away shirts.

The South American football utopia everyone had hoped for in Paraguay never quite materialised. No one begrudged Brazil an easy victory in the final over Uruguay, who won only one game in the first round and used the penalty shoot-out in the knockout stages, but all those exotic-looking girls dancing in the aisles seemed a bit staged, especially now that even the sam­ba band have found a sponsorship deal.

And for Paraguay, South America’s second poorest nation, it was business as usual. Their famous goal­keeper, Jose Luis Chilavert, who boycotted the Copa after a disagreement with the organising committee had explained his disquiet before the tournament. “I’ve always said that the Copa America should not be held in Paraguay,” he argued. “Because in my country there are a lot of poor people who don’t have enough to eat, and we can’t afford the luxury of organizing a tournament of this size.”

Chilavert was probably right, but he wasn’t really thanked for it by the ordinary Paraguayans who had counted on the money a continent of football fans would bring with them. Like many of the stars, the crowds never really turned up, and those that came were­n’t in Paraguay long enough to make a diff­erence.

Still, the Copa provided a refreshing alt­ernative to Europe, with the added blessing of being able to bring big business out in a cold sweat with its legions of unofficial replica shirts. The European Champion­ships in 2000 will be held in Holland and Belgium while the 2001 Copa America is scheduled for Colombia, where the government have recently ceded large territories to a band of ruthless revolutionaries. It’s that kind of tournament.

From WSC 151 September 1999. What was happening this month