Host of troubles

The choice of Colombia as the host nation for the Copa America caused much controversy and country's ability to host the tournament was called into question. Simeon Tegel reports

Allowing Colombia to host the Copa América was either a very brave decision or a very fool­ish one. Unfortunately for the officials of the South American Football Confederation (Con­mebol), it was the second alternative which increasingly looked the more accurate description in the run-up to the July tournament, the region’s biennial equivalent of the European Championship.

The unmistakable clue came on June 28, exactly two weeks before the Copa was due to begin, as Conmebol dramatically cancelled the competition following the kidnapping of Hernán Mejía, vice president of the Colombian Football Federation. If you are going to hold the event in a place as wild as Colombia, ravaged by a 37-year civil war and with the national economy dominated by the blood-drenched drugs trade, then surely you have a contingency plan ready to swing into action following the first narco-terrorist assault.

After all, it is not as though football has remained immune to the corruption and vio­lence that permeates Colombian society. The whole world remembers the murder of de­fender Andrés Escobar outside a Medellín nightclub days after his own goal sent Colombia crashing out of the 1994 World Cup. In­deed, Colombia’s humiliating decision to sur­render its hard-won right to stage the 1986 World Cup was also largely blamed on the country’s critical security situation as well as the economic demands of the newly expanded tournament.

Over the past two decades there has been a string of murders of referees and officials, death threats to players and claims of drug cartels fixing matches. The kidnapping of Mej­ía or one of his col­leagues might also have been eas­ily foreseen – Co­lombia does have the highest kid­nap rate in the world.

But no. To the distress of Col­ombia’s president, An­drés Pastrana, who had stak­ed his reputation on bringing the “Cup of Peace” to his stricken coun­try, Con­mebol decided the tournament should be re­scheduled else­where. But when Brazil, Uru­guay and Mex­ico said they were unable to provide alternative venues at such short notice, the decision was taken to cancel the competition al­to­gether.

However, Conmebol executives had reck­oned without the tournament’s big-name spon­sors, furious at the loss of a major advertising platform. Traffic, the Brazilian com­pany which owned the TV rights to the com­petition, and had conspiciously failed to secure any sponsorship deals for FIFA’s doomed World Club Championship, was also said to have pressured the football bureaucrats. After a tense week of negotiations, which even saw the release of Mejía by Marxist guerillas of the FARC, Colombia’s largest armed group, Conmebol announced on July 5, less than a week before the tournament had been due to start, that it was now back on.

National managers scrambled to reunite dispersed squads. Special guests Canada said they could not do so. Argentina, without any doubt Latin America’s team of the moment, also turned down the invitation, with spokes­man Raúl Steimberg insisting it had come too late. Oscar Gim­énez, president of top flight club Argentinos Juniors, let the cat out of the bag, though, when he told reporters: “The lack of security in Co­lombia at the moment was the criterion.” Given the death threats made against several Argentinian players, including Lazio striker Hernan Crespo, the decision was predictable, if lam­entable. Costa Rica and Honduras filled in as last-minute replacements.

So Colombia staged the Copa after all. But as journalist Manuel Figueroa wrote in the Bogotá daily El Espectador: “There should be no great illusions about this gesture by Con­mebol towards the country. Yesterday’s de­cision was based on economic foundations. That is the only way to explain the fact that in just five days the visceral fear that some were feeling on arrival in Colombia should have disappeared.” President Pastrana, however, was jubilant. “The perseverance, pressure, good spirits, will and tenacity of Colombians united together in a common goal has proved stron­ger than the action of a few violent peo­ple,” he beamed.

And after all that, the football. Unlike the European Championship, not many in Latin America take the Copa América very seriously. That, combined with the cancelled cancellation, meant that most countries sent virtual reserve sides. No Rivaldo. No Marcelo Salas. And, of course, no Gabriel Batistuta. Brazil have probably never played worse and crashed out 2-0 to a buoyant Honduras side in the quarter-finals. In an unremarkable final, the host nation beat Mexico 1-0.

Indeed, the figure of the tournament was probably Paulo Wanchope of Costa Rica and, for the moment, Manchester City. In his country’s 1-1 draw with Uruguay in the first round, he took on three Uruguayan players before seeing his first shot blocked by a de­fender, collected the rebound, beat two more opponents and finally hit the net. Maine Road’s loss will be Spain’s gain if he fulfills his wish of playing in La Primera this season.

From WSC 175 September 2001. What was happening this month