The ninth version of the Women’s Copa America, currently taking place and hosted by Colombia, is the biggest version of the competition so far, its prestige highlighted by a visit last week from FIFA president Gianni Infantino. And with the competition now planned to be staged every two years, instead of four, there is the hope that standards will continue to rise.
But one of the problems of the women’s game in South America has been clearly evident from the group phase: Brazil are still simply on a different level from everyone else. Brazil have won seven of the previous eight editions of the Copa América Femenina. The only one that got away was in 2006, when Argentina won on home ground.
After the defensive tightness that Argentina showed in the last World Cup, could they push Brazil hard this time? They might meet again in the final, but they were certainly unable to live with Brazil in the group phase. The teams met in the opening round, and Brazil hardly needed to break sweat to win 4-0.
Thereafter, it was much of the same for Brazil — three more convincing wins, not a goal conceded and the opposition unable to lay a glove on them. Brazil ended the group phase with 17 goals for and none against.
On the one hand, of course, this is excellent news for Brazil as they prepare a team for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next year followed by the Paris Olympics in 2024. For the first time in many years they are without any of their famous trio — midfielder Formiga, who has retired; striker Cristaine, who has been left out of the squad; and legendary playmaker Marta, who is injured.
With investments belatedly taking place in the domestic game, a new generation is having the chance to make a name for itself, and this Copa has, so far at least, been a splendid morale-boosting exercise. But is it a proper test for the serious stuff? It is worth recalling that just before the tournament Brazil went down in warm-up friendlies to both Denmark and Sweden. The Brazilians have not faced any similar kind of pressure in the Copa — and this is not likely to change in the semifinal.
Ahead of Tuesday’s semifinals, Brazil are the strongest of favourites against Paraguay, perhaps the biggest shock side of this year’s tournament. Four South American teams have never before made it to a World Cup or an Olympics, and Paraguay are one of them. That could now be changing. Paraguay surprisingly finished their group in second place, ahead of highly rated and more experienced Chile — the match between them was a dramatic encounter that Paraguay won 3-2 after having a two-goal cushion for most of the game.
Paraguay are now guaranteed a chance to go to the World Cup. The top three teams qualify automatically, with the fourth and fifth going into continental playoffs, and Paraguay can finish no lower than fourth. A win against Brazil is highly unlikely for Paraguay. The probability, then, is that Paraguay’s big match will be the playoff for third place on Friday. Rarely will so much have been riding on a third-place playoff.
But the biggest, most competitive game so far — perhaps the biggest game of the entire tournament — is Monday’s opening semifinal between Argentina and Colombia.
If Argentina once used home advantage to win the title, then Colombia hope that the same can apply to them. Hosts Colombia won all their matches in the group stage — if not as emphatically as Brazil, then usually with something to spare.
Women’s football has developed well in Colombia, where perhaps a cultural proximity with the United States might have been a positive factor. They even bid to stage next year’s World Cup, only to lose out to a joint bid from Australia and New Zealand. And Colombia have to their credit one of the greatest moments in the history of women’s football in South America, a 2-0 win over France in the 2015 World Cup — one of only two wins for the continent’s teams other than Brazil.
Colombia failed to make the last World Cup, and have two chances to reach the next one without having to go through a playoff, either winning the semifinal or coming out on top in the third-place match. But, of course, what they most want to do is shine in this tournament in front of their own fans.
Better yet, their opponents are Argentina. The footballing rivalry between Argentina and Colombia is one of South America’s most interesting. When Colombia launched a professional league shortly after World War II, it was Argentine players — like the great Alfredo Di Stefano — who did most to get it up and running. So, when, in 1993, Colombia inflicted Argentina’s first-ever home defeat in World Cup qualification — by the thumping margin of 5-0 — some saw it as a case of patricide.
The women’s game does not have the same history but, even so, the Argentina side carry into Monday’s match a well-established sense of self-esteem. They defended stubbornly in the last World Cup, coming out of the tournament with credit for the first time, and in this tournament they recovered well from a potentially demoralising heavy debut defeat to Brazil. Colombia against Argentina, then, holds rich promise.
Also holding promise: Sunday’s decider for fifth place, where the winner makes it to a World Cup playoff. This is between Chile and Venezuela, the sides who finished third in their groups. For Chile, it was something of a disappointment — some saw them as the second-best team in the continent, a status they have not justified. Venezuela also have grounds for regret — true, they are one of those sides who have never qualified for anything, but they have been making excellent progress, and won their first two matches.
Then came the moment of truth for Venezuela, including a heavy defeat to Brazil. It left them needing to beat Argentina to reach the semifinals. They tried hard, but failed to score for the second match running and lost 1-0.
Venezuela caused something of a surprise by beating Chile in a warm-up friendly. But can they do it now, when it really matters?