By Samindra Kunti in Rio de Janeiro
June 17 – Brazil kicked off the Copa America with a subdued 3-0 win against Bolivia. High tickets prices led to many empty seats during the opening weekend which saw Argentina’s misery continue with a 2-0 defeat by Colombia and Asian champions Qatar battle back to draw 2-2 with Paraguay.
Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro attended the tournament’s curtain raiser between hosts Brazil and Bolivia. A modest but colourful ceremony with requisite music act to reflect South America and the tournament’s slogan ‘Vibra continente’ preceded the game. Conmebol’s statement that the opening game was sold out proved to be incorrect.
A few corners in the 67,000-capacity Morumbi stadium remained unoccupied and a minority of those that did come shouted ‘Bicha’ at Bolivian goalkeeper Carlos Lampe. During the 2018 World Cup qualifiers FIFA fined the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) for the homophobic chant.
Brazil had been beaten only once at the Morumbi – by Argentina in 1963 – and Bolivia were unlikely candidates to alter that statistic. The hosts, playing in white in reference to Brazil’s maiden Copa America win in 1919, restricted the Bolivians to defending, but struggled to breakdown the green wall in front of them in a first half that quietened the crowd of 47,260, enough for a record gate of $5.7 million with fans paying $122 on average for a ticket. The upper middle-class crowd rarely woke from its slumber.
“This is normal in Sao Paulo, there are lot of fans of clubs so it’s always complicated playing here, but we showed personality,” said Daniel Alves. ”There was even a moment when Tite shouted and you could hear it out on the pitch. It’s different in Bahia. People miss the Brazil team, and the energy that we bring. For sure, things will be more animated than here.”
In the Brazilian league ticket prices go for as little as $15. The minimum wage in Brazil is established at just $256 a month. On the eve of the tournament Conmebol president Alejandro Dominguez had ruled against lowering ticket prices to address the sluggish sales and make games more accessible to local fans.
In a strangely eerie atmosphere Brazil failed to register a single clear-cut chance before the break, stimulating the Sao Paulo crowd into a rare moment of vociferousness to jeer the team off the field.
The second half was better. The movement of Roberto Firmino, Richarlison and Philippe Coutinho Brazil found more space and from the spot Coutinho opened the score in the 49th minute after Nestor Pistana, the 2018 World Cup final referee, consulted VAR. Minutes later the Barcelona player popped up at the far post to head in Brazil’s second. The former Liverpool star had also scored Brazil’s first two goals at the Russia World Cup.
Brazil were now in total control. They relaxed and ran away with the game through a late goal from substitute Everton, whose run past three Bolivians resulted in a lovely finish into the bottom-right corner wrapped up a routine, but unconvincing, win for Brazil.
On Saturday Argentina slumped to a 2-0 group B defeat against Colombia, a result that leaves question marks over their Copa America campaign with fixtures against both Paraguay and Qatar to come.
Colombia coach Carlos Queiroz packed the midfield and his team had no problems containing Argentina, who played neither the long ball nor went short with a lack of width. In the second half Rodrigo De Paul reinforced Argentina’s midfield, but the Albiceleste failed to penetrate Colombia’s well organised defense and were easily unpicked at the back by two well-worked attacks that led to goals from Roger Martinez and substitute Davun Zapata.
The defeat left Messi’s ongoing quest for a first senior title with Argentina in doubt. Caretaker coach Lionel Scaloni should still, nevertheless, make the last eight in a field of twelve teams, though it doesn’t look.
At the Maracana, on Sunday, Asian champions Qatar staged a remarkable comeback to get their maiden Copa America point in a 2-2 draw with Paraguay in Group C. Qatar fell behind to a third-minute penalty from Paraguay veteran Oscar Cardozo and struggled to pick up Miguel Almiron in midfield, whose through balls were a constant danger, but reacted well to the early blow with slick moves and good interchanges. Almoez Ali however failed to convert two excellent chances and Qatar would almost come to rue those missed opportunities.
Their inexperience showed again after the restart with Cardozo tapping in at the far post in the 50th minute, but he had his second goal ruled out for offside by referee Diego Haro and the VAR. But that was just temporary respite for Qatar. The introduction of Derlis Gonzalez at halftime had changed the complexion of the game offering more mobility to Paraguay and that translated into a wonderful strike from outside the box in the 55th minute to double Paraguay’s lead.
That should have swayed the game Paraguay’s way, but the Asian champions fought their way back into the game with spectacular goals and more triangulations that highlighted how far they have come in the international game. First, Almoez Ali, the Asian Cup’s top scorer with nine goals, scored with a stunning shot in the top-right corner before Boualem Khoukhi got on the end of a nicely worked attack that carved open the opposing defense to equalize.
“We didn’t start well, which is a factor that we have to improve on in the relation to the next games,” said Qatar coach Felix Sanchez. “We conceded at the start against Brazil as well, but our attitude is to recover. We are debutants, but at the end of the day, the draw was the right result.”
In other results Venezuela and Peru played out a 0-0 stalemate in front of just 13,370 fans in Porte Alegre, a seat occupancy of just 24% at the Arena de Gremio. In Belo Horizonte, Uruguay demolished 10-men Ecuador 4-0 to underwrite its title credentials.
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1569071811labto1569071811ofdlr1569071811owedi1569071811sni@o1569071811fni1569071811