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Brazil victory harms Copa America credibility

Posted: Monday July 26, 2004 7:19PM; Updated: Monday July 26, 2004 7:19PM
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LIMA, Peru (AP) -- Brazil's victory in the Copa America confirms the soccer universe is in a state of flux. Greece's triumph in the European Championship was of supernova proportions, and Brazil's championship was no small warp either.

In tying Argentina at the end of each half then winning 4-2 on penalties in Sunday's grand final, Brazil's third title in four Copas appeared to be business as usual. But without Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, or Roberto Carlos, Brazil's "B" side exceeded even its own brief. And there's the rub.

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What does this say about South America when Brazil can send a reserve squad and take home the championship?

All credit to coach Carlos Alberto Parreira and his staff for molding in limited time a scratch side with the fortitude and unflagging belief that it could overcome all-comers. He had dazzling talent at his disposal. Adriano, Alex, Luis Fabiano and Co. look good enough to qualify for the World Cup beside their seniors, and the happy experiment has given their 2006 defense a huge boost.

"Only Brazil can do this, build two national teams and do well in two competitive tournaments such as the Copa America and the World Cup qualifying," Parreira said.

But winning the Copa was a bonus to Brazil, along with beating the old enemy Argentina, and crushing nemesis Mexico for the first time in five years.

The Brazilian trialists lost to Paraguay in group play, and rode their luck in penalty shootouts in the semifinals and final.

A majority of teams brought their best lineups, including Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela, who occupy the top half of South America's 2006 qualifying, and CONCACAF champion Mexico, but none had Brazil's confidence or nous.

It made for a dramatic and exciting 41st edition of the Copa, which averaged 3 goals per game, the most since 1975. The only pity was more fans didn't see it. Copa fever was alive and well in Peru until the national team fell in the quarterfinals to Argentina 1-0. It was the only playoff game to sell out; remarkably, there were several thousand empty seats at the final.

But most South Americans are on the poverty line, and the Copa has long been devalued by the ever-growing drift of talent to a richer Europe, and crazy scheduling by CONMEBOL, which has stretched World Cup qualifying over two years. The next Copa in baseball-crazy Venezuela is better timed for 2007, a year after the World Cup.

Peru's legacy is seven refurbished stadiums at a cost of US$13 million, and a readiness to play good host again to the 2005 world under-17 championship.

The host nation also made a memorable start on the opening night when Bolivia, deliberately placed in Peru's group to offer an easy start, threatened to ruin those plans.

But at 2-1 down with four minutes left, Peru replacement midfielder Roberto "El Chorri" Palacios brought down a ball on the edge of the box, dribbled past two defenders then flicked the ball up with his right foot and rifled in the volley off his left, and made all of Peru instantly forget about national strikes, a grounded national airline, and an absent president.

"That late goal sparked a rollercoaster of emotions for me," Palacios said, before he and his teammates stopped talking to their own press over claims of shabby behavior at a training camp.

Chile and Ecuador were placed close to the border to draw their home fans, which also meant they didn't have far to go home after disappointing first rounds.

Chile was ousted on an injury-time goal by Costa Rica, which received a new coach only two weeks before the Copa. Thus Ticos officials had little faith, so they failed to account for their team making the quarterfinals, and forced angry players to take up to three days to return home.

Ecuador brought its first-choice side and left in worse shape after losses to Argentina, Mexico, and Uruguay by a combined 10-3 score. It marked the swansong for ponytailed striker Alex Aguinaga, who played in a record-equalling eighth Copa.

"There will never be another Maradona in Argentina or another Pele in Brazil, and I doubt we'll ever have another Aguinaga," said coach Hernan Gomez, whose surprising resignation was reluctantly accepted by his federation and players.

Venezuela, in mid-table in 2006 qualifying, came with high hopes of ending its reputation as the Copa doormat, and didn't. It still hasn't won a Copa match since 1967 but will have home advantage next time.

Mexico won the "Group of Death" with a thrilling first win over Argentina since 1990, but Argentine-born coach Ricardo Lavolpe wasn't so embraced after El Tri's veterans were smashed by Brazil 4-0 in the quarterfinals.

Defending champion Colombia disguised its shortcomings well until it ran into Argentina in the quarters, but finished fourth which was better than expected.

Paraguay also got more warmup games than it thought it would for its Olympic squad, which gave Brazil its only loss and should give a good account in Athens.

After a hideous World Cup qualifying campaign, Uruguay resuscitated itself in its old Copa playground. The 14-time champion, winless all year, suddenly thought it could win a 15th after beating Paraguay 3-1 in the quarterfinals, and probably should have toppled Brazil in the semis.

But Brazil never lost its nerve, or wavered in confidence.

As coach Parreira said after his side qualified for the quarterfinals: "It doesn't matter which team we will have to play. As a five-time world champion, Brazil can't be choosing adversaries.

"Our jersey should be respected everywhere in the world."

He could have added: "No matter who is wearing it."

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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