By Calvin Palmer
I took a Google search last night to track down live coverage of the Copa America. Thanks to bleacherreport.com I now have the full schedule and plan to watch the remaining games — the semi-finals on Tuesday and Wednesday; the final next Sunday.
This afternoon I watched Brazil versus Paraguay on Univision, the Latino TV channel. I do not speak Spanish but when South American football is on offer I can put up with the Spanish commentary. In point of fact, I even like the adverts. The products may well be the same ones that feature on American channels but they are presented to the Spanish-speaking viewers with a wit and subtlety that would go over the heads of the average American.
I tuned into this afternoon’s game after half an hour of the action. I figured Brazil would assert their supremacy and the game would be a one-sided affair. It was but Paraguay were kept alive by the goalkeeping heroics of their captain Justo Villar.
Paraguay play in red and white stripes, so as a Stoke City supporter I find myself drawn to supporting them. And the similarity between Paraguay and Stoke City extends beyond red & white stripes. Paraguay play like Stoke City under the stewardship of manager Tony Pulis. They have an organized defence, closing men down quickly, and hitting long balls to lone striker Valdez. Right back Veron with his shaven head even reminded me of Stoke’s full-back Andy Wilkinson.
Paraguay defended brilliantly and when Brazil did penetrate the wall of red and white shirts, they found goalkeeper Justo Villar in unbeatable form. He pulled off five brilliant saves to keep his side in the game. On the one occasion when Villar was beaten, a teammate headed the ball off the line.
The scoreline remained at 0-0 until full-time. Thanks to Villar’s heroic display. In cricket, one can describe a captain’s innings, alas football has no equivalent phrase but captain Villar certainly led from the back.
In extra-time, the game boiled over and Brazil’s Leiva and Parguay’s Alcaraz were sent off – the former for an over-the ball challenge; the latter for wading in with his fists to exact justice on behalf of the injured party.
The period of extra-time ended 0-0, although Valdez did have the opportunity to snatch victory in the closing minutes but he opted to volley a shot that flew way wide of Brazil’s goal rather than bring the ball under control and pick his spot.
But more drama was to follow in the penalty shoot-out. Brazil, usually the masters of every footballing skill, were suddenly reduced to mere novices. First, Elano took a kick that had the trajectory of a field goal in the NFL. His miss was subsequently replicated by two teammates.
Barretto stepped up to take Paraguay’s first spot-kick and the chance to pile the pressure on Brazil. He put his shot wide of the left-hand post.
Then Villar reproduced his unbeatable form of the previous 120 minutes, diving to his left to beat out Thiago Silva’s spot-kick.
Paraguay’s Estigarribia powerful shot gave his country the lead.
Brazil’s Santos had the chance to restore parity but blazed his shot high over the bar and then turned away and pointed at the penalty spot and an imaginary divot.
Riveros blasted into the roof of the net to give Paraguay a two goal advantage.
When the hapless Fred fired wide of the post for Brazil, it was game over. Copa America champions were out of the 2011 tournament in the most dismal of circumstances – four penalties taken and four penalties missed.
After the game, Paraguay’s jubilant captain Villar paid tribute to his team’s fighting spirit.
“It is difficult to analyse,” he said. “Brazil were much better and we had to defend ourselves.
“We had almost no opportunities to score, but we fought a lot. Order and focus were the keys of the game.”
The last sentence was straight out of an interview by Stoke City manager Tony Pulis.
For Villar’s sake, I am glad Paraguay won. It was a cracking match, entertaining throughout and with a dramatic finale. And who would believe that Pulisball would triumph over the might of Brazil?