One has to go a couple of years back, when a plan for revitalizing the oldest continental championship was designed. CONMEBOL decided on championship every 2 years hosted by each country. Argentina was the first host in 1987 and the last was to be Venezuela in 2007. Long term plan, well thought. Reality was against it, as always – the first was the formula. Given the limited number of countries, it was hard to find a formula exciting enough to lure the fans. Travel was expensive for them. Aging venues were also becoming severe problem – pitch, players and journalists facilities, new era of fan violence and security. There were also old habits – for years many countries used the tournament for experiments, not always fielding their best, especially when World Cup was near, as it was in 1989. Copa America was scheduled just before the World Cup qualifications and for the strongest teams it was a tournament of secondary importance. And on top of it many clubs refused to release players for Copa America – not a new problem, but looming larger by the end of the 1980s. As ever, there were newly appointed coaches, who started building their teams anew and that in passionate South America most often was met with severe criticism and scandals. No matter the intentions of CONMEBOL, South American attitudes were capable of blocking any reasonable planning.
So, this was the second issue of the new plan and Brazil was the host – something happening for the first time since 1949. The formula of the 1987 Copa America was harshly criticized and changed – this time it was 2 round-robin groups of 5 teams each at first. The top 2 teams qualified for the final stage, also playing round-robin. To the displeasure of the hosts, CONMEBOL did not allow 24-players rosters, but – also as usual – decided on compromise making little sense: 20 players were allowed in the first phase, but for the final stage – 24. The tournament was to be played in the cities of Goiania, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, and Salvador. The first stage was scheduled in Goiania, Recife, and Salvador and the final stage was entirely to be played on Maracana, Rio de Janeiro. The choice of cities created enormous scandal for team Brazil and its coach. Most teams, Brazil included, had new coaches, so they were somewhat ‘raw’, in building stage, hoping to be ready for the World Cup qualifications. For Carlos Bilardo’s Argentina it was clearly preparatory tournament – the only competitive games the reigning World champions had to play between 1986 and 1990. Bilardo indicated that Copa America was not all that important – it was more or less a training stage, getting ready for defending the world title next year. Yet, Argentina was a favourite. Uruguay too – they won the previous 2 continental championships. Brazil – always a favourite, although success in Copa America was lacking. Along with the traditional favourites, Colombia, Chile, and Paraguay were likely candidates to reach the final stage – rapidly rising Colombia, very promising Chile in the previous Copa America, and unpredictable Paraguay, which was always viewed with caution in South America, for they were traditionally difficult to beat and capable of surprises.
Few teams were weakened by absence of stars – European clubs refused to release players, so Paraguay was without Roberto Cabanas (Brest), Julio Cesar Romero (Barcelona), Jose Luis Chilavert (Real Zaragoza), and Jorge Nunes (Deportivo Cali). Chile was without Ivo Basay (Reims), Ivan Zamorano, Hugo Rubio, and Jorge Aravena. On the other hand, the veteran goalkeeper Oscar Raul Wirth was in the team without playing for any club, the only player without a club in the tournament. Argentina and Brazil had similar problems – Maradona was unhappy with Italy by now and there were rumours for his transfer from Napoli to Olympique Marseille. Mentally, he was tired and involved with other things. Since Argentina depended on him, it was not at all sure the team will play strong football and Bilardo indicated so as well. There were various new players to be tested – one of them was new only for Bilardo’s selections: Gabriel Calderon had strong season with Paris St. Germain and was called
back to the national team for the first time since 1982 World Cup. To a point, it was experimental squad eventually to be shaped slowly for the 1990 World Cup.
Brazil, with new coach – Sebastiao Lazaroni – presented plethora of problems. The first was Lazaroni’s approach – he declared that his team will play modern European football, which in Brazil always translated as defensive football both as real coach’s intentions and popular perception. The battle between ‘Jogo Bonito’ and ‘European’ football was old and tiresome by now – more or less, started around 1970 and not moving an inch so far. Lazaroni proclaimed that his team will play 5-3-2, with a libero and 2 stoppers in defense. ‘European’ football brought nothing good for Brazil so far, yet, coach after coach (including generally attacking minded coaches like Zagalo and Tele Santana) proclaimed their desire to bring the country up to date. In the case of Lazaroni, trouble started right away – not only he wanted defensive team, but designated Mauro Galvao as his libero – and it was the position Mauro Galvao played in his club. Further, Lazaroni’s selection was torpedoed by absences – Jorginho and Careca were injured. Julio Cesar and Carlos Mozer were not released by Montpellier and Olympique Marseille. Muller (Torino) was eventually released, but arrived only 3 days before the star of Copa America and Lazaroni judged him not ready and will select him for the World Cup qualifications. Muller left the team in anger. Out of regulars, Lazaroni hastily called Baltazar (Atletico Madrid) and Charles (Bahia). The last call proved to be a bomb, which exploded and almost finished the coach – outside the state of Bahia, the inclusion of Charles was immediately criticized: it was seen as only diplomatic call to gall locals, for team Brazil was playing its opening games in Salvador, the capital of Bahia. Locally, everybody thought their star must be a regular. Lazaroni had no real intention of using Charles and the locals rebelled, the coach was nastily criticized in the local media, his abilities were questioned, team Brazil was booed and met with great hostility instead of support. In part, that came from CONMEBOL’s refusal to allow 24-man squads in the opening stage of the tournament. Lazaroni wanted the big number in order of trying various options and Charles was part of this building process – but with only 20 players allowed the team had to be reduced and Charles (along with goalkeeper Ze Carlos) was out.Perhaps Lazaroni did not want that at all, but was forced by circumstances, but the people of Bahia were infuriated. Locally, it was predicted that Lazaroni will be fired right away and the coach immediately was on very slippery slope, for his defensive ‘European’ football was severely criticized nationwide. Suddenly Brazil was in big trouble – much bigger than any other team.
So, scandals from start and in such typically South American atmosphere little attention was paid on more significant and real changes: the most important one was change of guard – most teams had not only new coaches, but young coaches (including 38-years old Lazaroni). A new generation with new ideas and better tuned to contemporary football. Colombian Francisco Maturana was also young, but also experienced, cutting his teeth at the 1987 Copa America. He was the chief representative of the new wave at the moment, yet, it was the debut of fairly unknown Uruguayan perhaps the most important – Oscar Washington Tabarez was just appointed as coach of Uruguay and although his team presented no revolutionary changes (in terms of selected players), he immediately created a long term plan for developing the national team of Uruguay, which practically involved the whole Uruguayan football – from kids to first team, clubs included. This plan is still in use and produced wonderful results for many, many years. From another angle modernization came from Ecuador – they appointed the Yugoslav Dusan Draskovic as a coach of the national team. It was direct employ of European modern methods by hiring an European. At a glimpse, the old guard of South American football was practically represented only by Carlos Bilardo and Brazilian Pepe, coaching Peru – all others, whether domestic or imported coaches (5 countries had foreign coaches) were quite young. The new wave as refreshing, yet, to a point – the problems of South American football were a big barrier to those trying to implement new ideas and could be said that coaches largely depended on the talent at hand – Maturana was lucky to have exciting players, lead by Valderrama, but Tabarez had to tailor his ideas to the players he had, most of them experienced and defensive minded. If Draskovic was relatively free to try his vision in Ecuador, Pepe had little options – Peruvian football was in decline and virtually lacked new talented players. As good as the new Chilean generation was, it was a matter of few players – not enough for full team even, so Wirth, without a club to play for, had to be included. Take a handful of stars and most countries had almost nothing left. Take away a few players and even Lazaroni’s ideas were curtailed – and that speaking a such enormous pool of talent as Brazil. Anyhow, enough of that – Copa America was starting.