Only one word can really capture the spirit of this year's Copa América - unpredictable. Here's the latest chapter.
The 2011 Copa América has been a tournament full of shocks, everyone would agree. None of the three pre-tournament favourites won their groups, none of the group winners made it through to the semis, and both the hosts and the holders (who were among those favourites first mentioned) went out in the quarter-finals. When the curtain is raised on the final in River Plate's Estadio Monumental on Sunday afternoon, though, there will be one sight that's familiar from past tournaments.
After the riotous overturning of expectations in the quarter-finals, the first semi went somewhat more to form. Uruguay, winners of fourteen Copas América up to now (a competition record they share with Argentina), will compete in their twenty-first final, and their first since 1999 when they lost to 3-0 to Brazil in Asunción. A 2-0 win over Peru in La Plata was just reward for a solid performance in their fourth consecutive Copa semi-final, and underlines their general upsurge in form since scraping qualification for last year's World Cup.
Like most of the other favourites, Uruguay's Copa got off to a very slow start in the group stage, although their match with Chile was (perhaps predictably) the most evenly-fought of the first round given both sides similar levels of quality but fascinatingly different styles. A cagey 1-0 win over Mexico in the final group match confirmed their qualification to the quarter-finals, where they met great rivals – and tournament hosts – Argentina in Santa Fe.
That match was arguably the best of the tournament so far – although Chile v Venezuela the following day ran it close – and saw both teams have a goal (correctly) disallowed, both teams have a man (correctly) sent off, and both teams score once to boot. Uruguay's qualification for the semi-final may have come through the penalty shootout, and goalkeeper Fernando Muslera may have been the man of the match, but it would be too much to call Uruguay's progression a mere lucky break.
Last year's march to the semi-final of the World Cup should tip people off to that. Uruguay may not be spectacular and freewheeling like Chile, or physically dominant like Brazil, or have individual quality in the frankly scary quantity Argentina can claim, but they are organised, they know where and when to attack and how to defend as a team, and in Diego Forlán, Luis Suárez, Diego Lugano, Arévalo Ríos and others, they have a strong, well-balanced and stable spine. It's presided over by a fantastic manager, as well; Óscar Washington Tabárez.
The first time I visited Uruguay, in early 2007, Tabárez was in the newspapers lamenting how far the nation had fallen from its footballing glory years in the first half of the twentieth century. Few Uruguayans played in the world's top leagues, he sadly admitted, and his squad was drawn largely from players in the domestic league and Argentina. Under three-and-a-half years later, I was back in Montevideo watching on a big screen in Plaza Independencia as the national side pushed the Netherlands hard in a World Cup semi-final most of the assembled thousands surely never thought they'd witness. In all of this progression, the manager has been a key figure.
Tabárez was also manager when Uruguay managed their most recent impressive showing at a World Cup prior to last year, the quarter-final in 1990 (bizarrely, Uruguay always have a strong World Cup when the year ends in a zero: winners in 1930 and 1950; semi-finalists in 1970 and 2010; quarter-finalists in 1990). Realising he has a relatively limited pool of players to draw from – he's manager of CONMEBOL's least populous nation – Tabárez has stuck with a system his best players are comfortable in, and reaped the rewards so far.
This was never more apparent than in the quarter-final against Argentina. Whilst Sergio Batista has the luxury of being able to leave Carlos Tevez, Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Pastore among others on the bench to bring on later should the situation demand their presence, he was proved (not for the first time) woefully clueless about how to really change a game his side were failing to take by the scruff of the neck. He might have stumbled across a formation that got good performances out of Lionel Messi, but anyone could see that if you put a striker who'll keep defenders busy ahead of Messi, the world's best player will do damage in the space he's given to work in.
Batista's approach when Argentina failed to take control of that game was to throw everything including the kitchen sink towards Uruguay's goal, and hope something stuck. Tabárez's rejigging after seeing his goalscorer Diego Pérez sent off before half time was masterly, and helped towards keeping Argentina's attack out. I said on Twitter before half time that Argentina would need a goal before the break because once Tabárez got the chance to talk to his remaining ten men in the interval, he'd be able to ultimately outwit Batista. The margins were narrow, in the end, as they were always likely to be, but even though they predictably came under the kosh in the second half, Uruguay were still able to look threatening whenever they broke, despite being visibly exhausted as the game wore on.
Against Peru, of course, they had an easier assignment. Tabárez's countryman Sergio Markarián is a far better manager than Batista, but the tools at his disposal aren't anywhere near as impressive. It's impressive, having very recently been way down the pecking order and even in danger of being kicked out of FIFA a couple of years ago, that Peru made it to the semi-final here, but it was always going to be an uphill struggle for them. They were well set-up and performed admirably, but the patience of Uruguay's approach eventually found a way through.
Uruguay's own quarter-final win was one of the many shocks in this tournament, then, but no-one should see their ultimate place in the final as a surprise, at least historically. The team are carrying on a rich tradition and a fine recent renaissance for a proud footballing nation. That record fifteenth Copa could now be just one more win away. The players deserve it, and so does Tabárez.