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Early signs good from a thrilling Copa

With the group games over and the quarter final ties set, the Copa has proven to be one of the most entertaining and eventful in years.

With the exception of Brazil, Mexico and the USA, all 12 competing nations brought their top teams and they have provided goals galore. The 18 games have given us 50 goals at an average of 2.8 a game. The last World Cup to provide that many goals was Mexico in 1970.

Off the field, a country whose main passion is baseball has succumbed to futbol - for three weeks at least - and turned out in numbers to enthusiastically support their home side.

The team, known as la vino tinto, or red wine because of their claret shirts, have not disappointed. Richard Paez's side took advantage of a favourable draw to win their first Copa America match in 40 years and qualify for the knock-out stages for the first time ever.

Venezuela's success on the pitch has mirrored success off it. And that is surprising not just because Venezuela is the least footballing of South American nations. It has more to do with the Copa America finally deciding what it wants to be.

When the South American Football Confederation changed the format of the World Cup qualifiers almost a decade ago, it devalued its own blue riband tournament. The qualifiers for the 2002 tournament became a round robin played over two years and familiarity bred contempt.

South American sides were sick of playing each other and the players, more and more of whom were playing their trade in Europe, were tired of transatlantic travel. When the season ended they wanted a break, not more games against the same teams.

Moreover, the organisation left much to be desired. Authorities couldn't decide how regularly the tournament should be disputed. There was a two-year break after Paraguay in 1999 and a three-year break after Colombia in 2001. The three-year break introduced since - the Copa was played in Peru in 2004 - has now been changed to a four-year one and it has been decided the Copa will take place in the year following the World Cup.

The new spot is the perfect time for the Copa America. It is the only major international competition of the summer and gives managers the competitive environment in which to prepare their squads and tactics for the World Cup qualifiers, which start in September.

Many of the teams here have new coaches and if the first round of games are any measure then they are opting to play positive football.

The most obvious example is Argentina. Manager Alfio 'Coco' Basile has been torn in different ways in the year since Argentina's untimely exit from the 2006 World Cup. This tournament has shown that Basile has made two firm decisions.

First, he opted to ditch a half baked idea to build an Argentine side from home-based players. There are simply too many class players playing overseas and Argentines are, like Brazilians, leaving their homeland at an ever earlier age to cross the Atlantic.

Basile also decided against totally transforming his side in favour of a gradual rebuilding process. Instead of retiring stalwarts like Roberto Ayala, Pablo Aimar, Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo, he is using them to bring along younger less experienced players like Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi and Fernando Gago.

The plan, so far, has worked well. Argentina might be defensively suspect but they have played the best football of the tournament and scored a competition high 10 goals in three games.

But they were not alone in playing positive football. The hundreds of journalists who come to the Copa America from places like Thailand, China and Egypt came because they believe South American football is more entertaining and they were not disappointed.

Under Gerardo Martino, Paraguay scored five against Colombia and three against the US and shrugged off a little of their reputation as a side that only knows how to grind out results.

Mexico recovered from their Gold Cup hangover and finally started playing the kind of football that Hugo Sanchez is always saying they can. Thanks largely to Nery Castillo up front and Rafael Marquez at the back, the Mexicans have a real chance of winning the competition, especially if they are psychologically prepared to meet the big guns to whom they have always felt inferior.

And Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela have all surprised with their robust approach. In the quarter finals, Chile can get their revenge on Brazil for the undeserved 3-0 defeat last week And Venezuela still have luck on the draw and could surprise a lackluster Uruguay. Ecuador can count themselves unlucky to be heading home after playing attractive football and contributing to some of the best games so far.

The only down side has been the infrastructure surrounding the tournament.

Conmebol President Nicolas Leoz called these games the best ever but that is nonsense. Venezuela doesn't have the hotels, roads, buses or airlines to host a tournament of this size and it has shown.

Hugo Chavez reportedly spent $1 billion to organise the competition and much of that went on renovating seven existing stadiums and building two from scratch. Never have so many venues been used for one Copa America.

But some of them were clearly not ready. The ground in Maturin which will host next Sunday's quarter final between Mexico and Paraguay was a mess. And the Metropolitano Stadium in Barquisimeto, where Argentina will take on Peru was not just a mess, it was a dangerous mess.

The stadium was literally unfinished. On the day of the game, the place didn't just look like a building site, it was a building site. Huge piles of rubble surrounded the ground. Iron bars jutted from unfinished concrete pillars. Wires hung from walls and ceilings. Entrance ramps were impassable because scaffolding was still in place.

Builders simply gave up on the corner sections of the ground. Two of the four corners were missing and there were huge stantions where bits of the roof were supposed to go. The capacity was cut to 37,000 from an intended 42,000.

In a country starved of football and attention, such issues were easily glossed over. The Venezuelans waded through mud and over still sticky tarmac to pack the Metropolitano and scream like schoolgirls at the presence of Messi and Tevez.

They really got it into. And the Copa did too. It got its groove back.


Best player: Robinho

Brazil have been awful but they were saved by Robinho, who scored all Brazil's four goals, including a hat trick against Chile. He's slippery and he has kept Brazil alive single handedly.

Best Young Player: Nery Castillo

The 23-year old Olympiakos striker is no teenager but he wasn't well known before this tournament. He is now, after a Brazilian type goal against the Brazilians (and a horrific miss) and a poacher's goal against Ecuador helped Mexico to top place in Group B.

Best team: Without a doubt Argentina

Argentina haven't gone this long without a first class trophy since winning the World Cup in 1978 but they could end that drought with this side. Their defence is getting on and their keeper doesn't have the safest pair of hands but when their midfield turns it on they should score more than they concede.

Best goal: Argentina's second in the 4-2 win against Colombia

Javier Mascherano won the ball in midfield, passed it to Lionel Messi, who fed Javier Zanetti on the right wing. He ran forward, looked up at the edge of the box and didn't so much cross the ball as chip it on to the head of the incoming Juan Roman Riquelme. It all seemed to happen in slow motion and they made it look so easy.

Best game: Colombia 2-4 Argentina

Great game, great atmosphere. Argentina were as arrogant as they were awesome in this see saw game in Maracaibo. After going a goal down in 10 minutes they went in 3-1 up after some masterful midfield magic from Riquelme. But they took their foot off the pedal and almost paid the price when Colombia scored a second.


Read Andrew Downie's blog on the Copa action here...


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