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With the Copa America in full swing, Eric Devin has a look back at some of the finest individual performances over the course of the tournament’s illustrious history.
This summer’s Copa America has been, until the second set of matches in Group A, a rather stolid affair. Matches have been highly physical and low scoring, teams generally preferring a catenaccio approach, as the usual safety net of two of the third place teams advancing is absent in this edition. One would be hard-pressed to highlight strong individual performances thus far, as each team has achieved their results to date on the back of cohesive team play. That has not, however always been the case at this tournament, as fine individual performances have been a hallmark of the Copa America in the past. While the current edition has yet to add to this list, we here at Outside of the Boot take a look back at the tournament’s illustrious history to reflect on some of the finest individual performances of the last hundred years.
Hector Scarone, 1926, Uruguay 6-0 Bolivia
In the 1926 edition, which was staged in Chile, Uruguay had no problems in winning its sixth title. The tournament was played as a round-robin affair, with Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina joining the hosts, Brazil having dropped out for the second time in three years. Bolivia were by far the group’s whipping boy, finishing with a goal differential of –22, with only two scored; their decisive loss against the champions was the norm. However, the five goals scored by Hector Scarone made the match notable; this remains the record for goals scored in one match. Too, while most of these performances are delimited by the matches in which they occurred, this also serves to honor Scarone, Uruguay’s early star who was instrumental in the team’s international success, even if he was operating in a more limited role by the 1930 World Cup win.
Juan Carlos Letelier, 1987, Chile 4-0 Brazil
1987 saw Uruguay win another title, but the result of the tournament was certainly Chile’s comprehensive defeat of Brazil. Admittedly this wasn’t a vintage Brazil team, but with the likes of Dunga and Romario featuring, nor was it a poor side. Both teams had handily defeated Venezuela, but with Brazil winning by a larger margin, only a win would see Chile through. Chile’s team were an undistinguished group, with most players domestically based, and only Ivan Zamorano, then just beginning his international career, would produce anything resembling a degree of renown. Chile had kept Brazil at bay through a tense first half, and nicked the lead at the end of the first half. When the teams came out for the second half, Juan Carlos Letelier quickly doubled it with an audacious chip, and then finished the scoring with a sublime finish from Jorge Contreras. While Letelier never made a splash in Europe, he played for Chile in four major tournaments and retired as the country’s third-leading goalscorer. In a decorated career, this was easily his finest hour and deserves recognition on any list of performances.
Diego Maradona, 1987, Argentina 3-0 Ecuador
Much like Pele and Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona is another of South America’s great football exports that never won his continent’s championship, although not for a lack of trying. At the height of his powers in 1987, much was expected of the reigning world champions, who were hosting that year’s edition. After an uninspiring draw against Peru in the opening match of the group stage, (from which only one team would progress) Maradona firmly took the team on his shoulders, placing his stamp on a 3-0 win over Ecuador with a penalty and a superb free kick, as well as playing a key pass in the build-up to Claudio Caniggia’s opener. A semi-final exit to Uruguay followed, but Maradona had turned in the tournament’s finest performance in a must-win match. The team, ironically, did win the trophy in 1991, with Maradona serving a suspension after failing a drugs test.
Rivaldo, 1999, Brazil 3-0 Uruguay
1999 was the year of Rivaldo, the Brazilian attacker winning the Ballon d’Or and La Liga before adding his first international title to an already impressive resume. It is worth noting, however, that the Barcelona attacker’s relationship with the national team was a somewhat tenuous one, as fans had been quick to jeer him in the past. Add to this the fact that he had been left out of 1997’s title-winning squad, and it was easy to see how redemption fueled the player. After scoring just once in the group stage, in a 7-0 demolition of Venezuela, and being sent off against Mexico, it seemed like more of the same. However, in the quarterfinals against Argentina, a brilliant free kick leveled the score, and following a victory over Mexico, the stage was set for the final against Uruguay. After having the best of the early stages of the match, a free kick was given for Brazil, and Rivaldo turned it in with a brilliant header, flashing across the goal into the opposite corner. As sumptuous as that finish had been, he quickly upped the ante seven minutes later, with a neat turn and flick doubling Brazil’s lead and effectively putting the match out of reach, the midfielder silencing his critics in emphatic fashion.
Fernando Muslera, 2011, Uruguay 1-1 Argentina
While it is attacking performances that frequently capture the imagination, we would be remiss if we didn’t include a defensive player in this list, as a fine save is equally as important as a goal in a tight match. With that in mind, Uruguay’s Fernando Muslera’s performance in the 2011 quarterfinal is a fitting coda to this list. Argentina had not done much to impress in the group stages, mustering only draws against Bolivia and Colombia before defeating Costa Rica to advance. They were, however, the hosts, and trotted out a front four of Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Things started poorly for the hosts, though as Diego Perez contributed a rare goal to give Uruguay an early lead. Argentina soon countered through Higuain, and when Perez was sent off on 38 minutes, it looked as if there could only be one result. Instead, Muslera pulled off a fine string of saves, including against Carlos Tevez in the penalty shootout to allow his side to progress. While his club career has never mirrored the success he has had with his country, Muslera’s canny play was the key for Uruguay’s unlikely title that year, and is more than deserving of recognition.
Written by Eric Devin