Uruguay light the way
In the end, it was only a slightly surprising result. The 2011 Copa America might not have gone the way of holders Brazil or hosts and favourites Argentina, but Uruguay were probably the next in line to win it. Sunday afternoon's 3-0 win over Paraguay was the result most expected after the semi-finals, and sees the Celeste lift their 15th Copa, pulling clear of Argentina, who they'd previously been level with on 14 tournament wins.
The first Copa America (under a different name) took place in Argentina in 1916, and on its 95th anniversary the tournament returned to Argentina, and had the same winner. All the same, football has moved on a lot in the intervening years, and the world's oldest international football tournament sees those winners claiming the trophy in very different circumstances to that first tournament.
After so many shocks had come earlier in the Copa, the older order started to establish itself when former winners Peru beat Venezuela - whose status as South American also-rans was only definitively cast off during this year's tournament - 4-1 in the third-place playoff on Saturday. On Sunday, it was fully established in a game Paraguay never looked liked forcing their way into.
Uruguay dominated the first half, and indeed the game. Just one minute in, Paraguay's Argentine-born midfielder Nestor Ortigoza beat away a header from Sebastian Coates on the goal-line with his hands, and that just served to foreshadow Uruguay's dominance in the game. Luis Suarez's opener was deflected, but was richly deserved all the same, even only 11 minutes into the match.
After that first goal, Uruguay arguably dominated even more. Before the goal the game had looked really promising from a neutral point of view; Paraguay had countered dangerously and Ortigoza was key to their game, launching one superb ball into the Uruguayan half minutes after that penalty line hand ball. With some of his challenges, Ortigoza was maybe a little lucky not to get booked, but all the same the deep-lying playmaker was crucial to Paraguay's game plan.
Of course, Paraguay were 2-0 down at the interval, and that rather heavily suggested that Oscar Washington Tabarez's men had been the better-drilled. Gerardo Martino, the Argentine manager of Paraguay, appeared to have put out a team to contain Uruguay's attacking threat. He failed, emphatically so. In Ortigoza and Cristian Riveros, Uruguay had the comfort of knowing their opponents weren't set up to counter rapidly - and I say that with no disrespect intended to those two players.
Uruguay also managed their own space very well. Closing down collectively, they ensured Paraguay's forwards remained isolated from their midfield. Any danger there was, was comfortably nullified by Paraguay's general poor forward play.
That wasn't, of course, a problem Uruguay themselves suffered from. Luis Suarez made as much as a nuisance of himself as ever, and Diego Forlan - who until now has had a fairly understated tournament - was superb on the big stage. His second goal, in stoppage time, was brilliantly set up with a headed through ball from Suarez after Edinson Cavani's pass (almost the first thing Cavani's done all tournament, incidentally), and brought Forlan level with 1920s great Hector Scarone as Uruguay's joint top goalscorer of all time.
Forlan's two goals were his first since last year's World Cup semi-final, and the first strike with about five minutes left of the first half sent Uruguay's fans in the Estadio Monumental into dreamland. From then until half time, the noise was incredible.
In the second half Paraguay were obliged to come out and take the game by the scruff of the neck for the first time in the tournament. They never really managed it, although they had a spell for perhaps the first half of the half in which they looked a far better team than they had before the break. Their forwards remained isolated, though, and although Nelson Haedo Valdez hit the crossbar, it became apparent that the victory was assured for Uruguay when the red-and-white waves continued to crash against the wall of blue defenders.
Uruguay continued to counter well, and with just under half an hour to play Tabarez sent on Edinson Cavani. Until that point Paraguay's left-back Elvis Marecos had been pressing on to add width to the attack, and Cavani was told to stick to the right wing, thus pushing back Marecos. The fact that the Napoli forward was introduced just moments before Martino sent on Marcelo Estigarribia to partner Marecos on the left seemed like luck on Tabarez's part, but either way Cavani's introduction proved a masterstroke. Until then, Uruguay had virtually ignored the left flank in midfield, and his presence gave Marecos crucial food for thought initially, though Cavani drifted across to the left frequently on the counter.
Trying to pick out Uruguay's outstanding player from the match is hard though, and that's a credit to the reason they've won this trophy; their team play. Egidio Arevalo Rios was superb, especially in the first half, at combating Paraguay's midfield and starting Uruguayan attacks. Diego Lugano led the defence as well as ever. Sebastian Coates, who was awarded the gong for Best Young Player of the tournament after the game, was also a rock. Coates is only 20, but slotted in effortlessly alongside Lugano, and is clearly a player with a big future.
Uruguay have fantastic spirit, and a lot of promise, then. They've also got a superb manager in Tabarez, whose return to the national team in 2006 is now looking like an inspired choice. I wrote just over a year ago for ESPNsoccernet that Uruguay's World Cup semi-final was a demonstration that their football was climbing out of a rut.
As the confetti settles, Uruguay's win is a win for tradition in some senses. But it's also a demonstration that a country that wasn't supposed to still be able to compete with powerhouses Brazil and Argentina can still do so, and can even show them how it's meant to be done.