A Look Back at the 1995 Copa America

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been. The 1995 tournament was held in Uruguay, and La Celeste had won every Copa America they had hosted previously. Yet the nineties were a fairly barren period for Uruguayan football. They failed to qualify for USA ’94, being pipped by Bolivia, and would more convincingly fail to make the cut for France ’98 as well. Moreover, it was a decade bursting with South American footballing talent – the age of Romario, Ronaldo, Batistuta, Redondo, Valderrama, Asprilla, Salas and Chilavert.

World champions Brazil started the competition in imperious fashion, despite being without both Romario and Bebeto. With Mario Zagallo – coach of the greatest Brazilian team of them all in 1970 – back in charge, it seemed that they couldn’t fail as they surged through their group without dropping a point or conceding a goal After seeing off Ecuador, goals from world-cup winner Zinho and the emerging “animal” Edmundo beat Peru. Leonardo then inspired a demolition of Colombia, complete with some customarily erratic goalkeeping from Rene Higuita, who scored an absolute howler of an own-goal in Brazil’s 3-0 win, somehow punching Juninho’s corner into his own net.

The Colombians also progressed, although they effectively sleepwalked through the group, still coming to terms with a difficult era after their humiliation in the US the previous summer and, far more importantly, the trauma of Andreas Escobar’s murder. Argentina were also struggling in the wake of their own world cup tribulations after Diego Maradona’s latest legacy-tarnishing misdemeanour. They started slowly, needing late goals to overcome a Marco Etcheverry-powered Bolivia, before hitting their stride in a 4-0 victory over a woeful Chile side that showed scant sign of blossoming into the entertaining team that would impress in France three years later. Batistuta and Balbo were forming a fearsome partnership in attack, while Diego Simeone announced himself on the international stage with a series of driving, energetic displays. Argentina too would make it out of the groups as expected, but came unstuck in their last game against the United States, taking a 3-0 battering and having to settle for second place and a quarter final date with old enemy Brazil.

Zoinks Scoob! Lalas on target

Admittedly, it was a weakened Argentina that the US beat so convincingly, but the quality of their performances at the ’95 Copa America was a pleasant surprise. Despite arriving in Uruguay under something of a cloud, as Zac Lee Rigg details in his excellent account of Steve Sampson’s team’s campaign, the US played some of the most cohesive attacking football of any nation at the tournament. Building on the success of the world cup held in their own backyard, many of the US players had benefited from moves to Europe on the back of their performances (including a number of them who had, as Rigg notes, no experience of club football prior to USA ’94), and so had a newfound discipline and confidence instilled into them that previous American teams had perhaps been lacking. Overcoming Chile with two goals from the all-action Eric Wynalda, they were defeated by Etcheverry’s Bolivia, “El Diablo” himself scoring the only goal of the game, before turning it on against Argentina, with the ever-hirsuite Alexei Lalas among the scorers, darting to the near post to flick home Coventry flop Cobi Jones’ cross.

Uruguay had an embarrassment of attacking riches at their disposal that was perhaps somewhat surprising given their absence from world cups over the course of the decade. Reuben Sosa was still kicking around, while buck-toothed sensation Daniel Fonseca always posed a threat. The poaching instincts and aerial ability of Penarol’s Marcelo Otero came to the fore, and his performances at the tournament earned him a move to Serie A with Vicenza. In midfield meanwhile, Gustavo Poyet was proving himself a committed craftsman with an eye for goal. The undisputed star, however, was Enzo Francescoli. Hector Nunez had built his team around Francescoli, one of the most dazzling playmakers of his time. The man known as The Prince – “El Principe” was revered for his scheming, probing runs and sumptuous range of passing for the likes of River Plate and Marseille. Zidedine Zidane idolised him to the extent that he named his son after him. Yet Francescoli had arguably never quite delivered for his country. Finally, at the age of 33, he would make his mark on the international stage. The three man midfield deployed by Nunez afforded Francescoli the space to get forward and craft chances for Fonseca and Otero, which they took with aplomb as La Celeste ran riot in their opening game against Venezuela, running out 4-1 winners. Francescoli himself scored the only goal to vanquish Paraguay, earning himself a rest in the final group game against Mexico, in which La Celeste gained the point they needed to top the group without him. The hosts were the only team in the quarter finals to win a game in 90 minutes (there was no extra time in the competition – games level at the final whistle went straight to penalties), Otero and Fonseca terrorising Bolivia in a 2-1 win. Elsewhere, Colombia needed penalties to get past steadfast Paraguay, while the US similarly beat long-time nemesis Mexico on spot kicks.

The match of the tournament, unsurprisingly, was the quarter final encounter between Argentina and Brazil.  Daniel Passarella’s team belatedly spluttered into life, twice leading through Balbo and Batistuta, with a healthy helping hand from, it has to be said, some dreadful goalkeeping from Claudio Taffarel. In between those two first half strikes, Edmundo had briefly restored parity, capitalising on some shoddy marking that must have had Passarella, an iron foot in a velvet boot as a world cup winning centre half in 1978, tearing his hair out. Yet it was Argentina who dominated their old enemy throughout, swarming forward and peppering Taffarel’s goal.  Balbo missed a glorious chance to wrap things up, while some increasingly questionable officiating saw Batigol dubiously flagged offside a number of times. Then came the real kicker. With ten minutes remaining, Brazil – second best all match – equalised with a ridiculously illegal goal, Tulio clearly (and I mean clearly) controlling the ball with his arm before firing in. Worse,  Passarella had substituted bothof his goalscoring forwards, thus blunting his side in the all important closing stages, and with the scores at 2-2 after 90 minutes, it was Brazil who prevailed in the shootout, Simeone and Fabbri missing their spot kicks. For Argentina – the beneficiaries of the” Hand of God” less than a decade earlier – the irony was well and truly lost as they raged at the Peruvian referee’s decision. The Brazilian media meanwhile, had a field day, one journalist declaring Tulio’s strike “an illegal goal of untouchable pedigree. I would let Tulio’s goal marry my sister”.

Tulio, happily with his clothes on…

Tulio himself was something of an enigma. A legend at Botafogo, with whom he enjoyed several spells, he was something of a journeyman elsewhere, hardly setting Europe alight in the manner of some of his more illustrious colleagues with brief spells at Sion in Switzerland and Ujpest in Hungary. His goalscoring record for his country, however, is sensational, with 13 goals in 15 internationals. The ’95 Copa was Tulio’s lone flirtation with the global footballing consciousness, although in the grand tradition of Brazilian strikers, he dubiously claims to have scored an absurd number of goals (over 900 in case you were wondering). According to the ever-reliable wikipedia, his adventures since the tournament have involved going into politics, posing nude for a gay magazine, and scoring “a polemical goal”. Maybe you can help me out as to what that actually means.

In the semi finals, Brazil squeezed past the USA, the only goal scored by Aldair, while Uruguay swept past Colombia 2-0, thanks to left back Edgardo Adinolfi and Otero.

The final was considered Brazil’s to lose, despite La Celeste being the hosts and, historically, Brazil’s bogey team, dating all the way back to the famous Maracanazo in 1950. Before the match, Zagallo had talked of silencing the home crowd at the famous old Centenario, scene of the first ever world cup final, which was packed to its 60,000 capacity on July 23rd 1995. True to form, Tulio gave Brazil the lead after half an hour. Yet the pitch at the Centenario was little better than a bog on the day, and the unstable, uneven surface began to impede Brazil and prevent them from establishing any kind of rhythm to capitalise on their lead. In the second half, “The Professor”, Pablo Bengoechea, came off the bench to curl in a 51st minute free kick, and from then on Uruguay began to threaten. With the scoreline at 1-1, penalties were once again required, and Tulio’s luck finally ran out – he missed the decisive kick to hand La Celeste a record-equalling 14thtitle.

Great player, happy ending, ugly trophy

Zagallo held four fingers up to the home crowd afterwards to signify Brazil’s superiority in world cups – a small time act that perhaps underlines the shaky confidence the samba stars have when it comes to Uruguay. Nothing could take away the sweetness of victory for La Celeste however. It was an oasis of light in a dark time for Uruguayan football – that the hero Francescoli, making his international swansong, should be the architect made it all the more emotional. It seemed that life could never get this good again for La Celeste – but you can never give up on that Charrua warriors’ spirit, and the wily old fox that is Oscar Tabarez would have some unfinished business to attend to. It would prove a long wait…but it would be worth it.

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Comments
  1. j rushton says:

    Francescoli,Papin,Waddle.A sublimely talented attacking triumvirate at Marseille.

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