We bring to you some of the highlights – and lowlights – of the centenary edition of the Copa America ahead of Sunday’s final between Argentina and Chile at New Jersey’s MetLife stadium.
Best feel-good story: Six years after a massive earthquake devastated the island nation, Haiti performed something of a miracle to qualify for the continental tournament. And although they failed to pick up a point from their three group matches, the Haitians won the hearts of fans with their spirited performances. Patrice Neveu’s team were unlucky not to at least secure a point from their opening group fixture against Peru, in which they looked the superior side throughout.
Most painstaking match: Chile needed more than four hours to defeat Colombia 2-0 in their semifinal on Wednesday after a freak storm swept through Chicago. The two-and-a-half hour delay left players, fans and officials equally frustrated.
Most bizarre injury: Having scored the opening goal for Argentina in their semifinal against the USA, forward Ezequiel Lavezzi’s night turned sour just before halftime. The 31-year-old fractured his left elbow after toppling backwards over an advertising board while attempting to keep a wayward pass in play. The injury ruled the Hebei China Fortune player out of the rest of the tournament.
Most foolhardy moment: With his team trailing 2-0 in their quarterfinal against Argentina, Luis Seijas appeared set to give Venezuela a fighting chance of victory. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero had brought down Venezuela’s Josef Martinez just before halftime and Seijas lined up confidently to take the penalty. But he was left to rue his audacity when Romero easily gathered the midfielder’s lame attempt at a Panenka-style chip.
Best player: A back injury before the tournament meant Lionel Messi did not make his first appearance here until coming on as a 61st-minute substitute in Argentina’s second match against Panama. Since then the Barcelona star has scored five goals and provided four assists to be the competition’s most decisive player. Along the way he has surpassed Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentina scoring record, having now netted 55 goals in 112 matches.
Biggest shock: Despite their 2015 Copa America triumph, Chile went into their quarterfinal against Mexico here as underdogs. The latter were in the midst of a 22-game winning streak – the longest in their history – and were playing in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Mexican crowd in Santa Clara. But the favoritism quickly evaporated as Chile went on a goal-scoring frenzy to crush Juan Carlos Osorio’s team 7-0.
Biggest blunder: Uruguay’s players and fans were nonplussed when, before the team’s opening match against Mexico, University of Phoenix stadium officials confused their national anthem with that of Chile. Instead of providing extra motivation for Oscar Tabarez’s side, the incident seemed to have the opposite effect as Mexico strolled to a 3-1 victory.
Biggest tantrum: He might not have played a single minute as he recovered from injury, but that did not diminish Luis Suarez’s penchant for grabbing headlines. So desperate was the Barcelona forward to see his team progress to the knockout phase – when he would presumably have been fit to play – Suarez pleaded with Tabarez to let him onto the pitch in the second half of the Celeste’s 1-0 loss to Venezuela. At one stage the former Liverpool man punched the plastic dugout in apparent anger at not being brought on. It didn’t seem to register with Suarez that he was ineligible to play given he wasn’t even included in Uruguay’s match squad.
Best performance: Honorable mentions go to Lionel Messi’s second-half hat-trick against Panama and the four-goal performance of Chile’s Eduardo Vargas against Mexico. But it was Messi’s virtuoso display in Argentina’s 4-0 semifinal victory over the USA that will live longest in the memory of those that have followed this tournament. The 29-year-old showed why he is considered by many as the greatest player in history with one of his finest performances in an Argentina shirt. Not only did he score a stunning goal from a free-kick, he also laid off two silky assists and generally menaced the USA’s defence.
Best goal: Again Messi takes the gong for his sublime strike against the USA – a powerful, curling 30-yard free kick that rifled into the top-right corner of the net, leaving goalkeeper Brad Guzan clasping at thin air.
Biggest controversy: Raul Ruidiaz earned Peru a berth in the knockout phase with a late goal that replays showed was scored with the striker’s right hand. Officials allowed the goal to stand despite having stopped play for almost five minutes to review video footage. Ruidiaz this week admitted he used his hand to push the ball into the net.
Biggest disappointment: Ruidiaz’s goal meant a group-stage elimination for Brazil, a result the five-time World Cup winners would not have contemplated before the tournament, even considering their shaky recent form. The Brazilian football confederation responded by sacking coach Dunga two days later and replacing him with former Corinthians boss Tite.