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Copa America brought Chile success, Argentina frustration and much more

SANTIAGO, Chile -- It unfolded the way many previous Copa America tournaments have unfolded. It had the tension, the passion and the familiarity, as well as the sense that you were witnessing another battle in a never-ending conflict and that you will never get closure.

When a competition is this old -- 99 years and counting -- and so drenched in history, it inevitably becomes self-referential. The FA Cup in England does the same and you can't blame either.

In a football landscape dominated by big brand leagues and, every four years, the World Cup, this is how you carve out a niche: by being different and sticking to what makes you special. And yet, there also was innovation. Veteran Copa America reporters such as my colleague Tim Vickery tell me one of the biggest changes compared to the early years is the number of traveling supporters. Not that long ago, it was all about the home nation and, at best, a few immigrants and ex-pats.

Chile 2015 was different. When Colombia and Argentina contested a quarterfinal in Vina del Mar, the split was, if not 50-50, then 40-40-20, with Chilean neutrals making up the one-fifth of the crowd. It made for a tremendous spectacle, as stadiums came to life in a way they often don't in European football.

Another wrinkle is that, while the Copa America has corporate sponsors like any other competition (more of this later), it doesn't feel like a sanitized football theme park. Further, there's no two-mile exclusion zone around venues of the kind FIFA favors, where only authorized, approved merchants can sell food and merchandise.

In fact, the walk from Santiago's Nuble Metro station, along Avenida Carlos Dittborn to the Estadio Nacional, was a carnival of individual -- and decidedly unlicensed -- enterprise. Folks sold sandwiches, empanadas and dubious merchandise along the sidewalk; some set up impromptu barbecues, while others had massive stewpots going. These were random folks who had clearly opted for the Chilean equivalent of the lemonade stand. Milton Friedman would have approved.

Before victory in Saturday's final, Chile had been beaten Copa America finalists in 1979 and 1987.

In terms of what happened on the pitch, there was mainly a reaffirmation of what we already knew. Brazil's movement along the learning curve is microscopic. When you make it all about Neymar and he then gets himself banned, you're going to struggle. Particularly if, as coach Dunga did, you compound the misery with some ill-advised man-management and tactics.

Uruguay without the suspended Luis Suarez -- and some might say even with him -- revert to their own Celeste stereotype: "garra" and experience with a dose of gamesmanship.

Meanwhile, Venezuela showed that they're continuing to progress, Ecuador disappointed and Paraguay were their usual gritty selves and went as far as their golden oldies would take them. Bolivia were awful, but we sort of expected that.

Peru surprised many and not just because veteran striker Paolo Guerrero -- the joint top scorer on four goals with Eduardo Vargas -- showed that he can still turn it on. The likes of Carlos Zambrano, Andre Carrillo and Yordy Reyna suggest their future is bright.

The fact that Colombia came up short where they were seemingly strongest was also a bit of a shock. Big guns up front such as James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao misfired, meaning that it was some sterling work at the other end -- in particular from goalkeeper David Ospina and Jeison Murillo -- who ensured the Cafeteros came within penalty kicks of the semifinal.

For the invited teams, it was a bit of a jolly. Mexico, focused on the Gold Cup, sent a B side that accomplished little. Jamaica did some autograph-hunting, swapped some shirts, took some selfies and gained some experience, which may or may not stand them in good stead.

Of the finalists, Argentina can view their glass as half-empty or half-full. For the second straight major tournament they reached the final and went into extra time, having played some superb football against Colombia and Paraguay in the prior rounds.

Again though, they came up short. Individually, the same can be said of Lionel Messi in the final, which was a disappointment, given what looked like his successful reinvention as a No. 10. Argentina still had enough to win -- Gonzalo Higuain, once again, was the fall guy with a late chance -- and provided confirmation that few, if any, can match them for talent and depth.

Argentina's last Copa America win was in 1993. Since then, they have lost three finals.

As for Chile, they finally conquered the Copa America after being runners-up on four occasions. This was success for the nation and for Chilean football and any neutral will be happy to see progressive, creative, attacking football rewarded with results.

However, it was also success for a managerial philosophy pushed by Marcelo Bielsa and taken to the next level by Jorge Sampaoli. For his part, the current coach was noncommittal about his future, saying what coaches always say in these situations, that he hasn't thought about his next move and that he just wants to enjoy the moment.

It will be shocking if Sampaoli, at 52, isn't targeted by a top European club. He may be, as he claims, a disciple of Bielsa, but relative to the master he has shown he is less dogmatic and more sophisticated.

The cadre of players who seem to go to the next level for their inspirational manager also deserve a shoutout. Marcelo Diaz, Jorge Valdivia, Charles Aranguiz, Vargas and others hit more heights for their national side than they do with their clubs. That has to be down to Sampaoli.

There were moments of acrimony, controversy and high drama, from Neymar's sending off vs. Colombia that ended his tournament to Gonzalo Jara's interference with Edinson Cavani. Such incidents are part of the Copa and we can at least take comfort from the fact that they did not derail the tournament overall.

Neither did Chile's Arturo Vidal's crashing his car, an irresponsible, criminal and potentially deadly act. Had he not been who he is, you wonder if we might not have seen him again in the tournament or around at all, at least for a while.

But there's also a level of hypocrisy among his critics. Folks who are rich and important -- and there's no denying either Vidal's wealth or his importance to Chile -- don't always get treated the same as the rank and file. It may not be right that some are less equal than others, but it's not a purely Chilean state of affairs either.

Officiating came under the glare of the spotlight and there were conspiracy theories, laying out master plans to favor Chile. There's no question that refereeing errors tended to go the way of Sampaoli's men, particularly against Uruguay and Peru.

Was it home cooking? Nobody knows but if one thing is clear, it is that the current generation of CONMEBOL referees is rather ordinary and it's ordinary officials who allow themselves to be influenced by home crowds.

That seems a more satisfying explanation than talk of a mega plot. Indeed, if there had been a concerted effort to help La Roja, odds are one of Messi, Sergio Aguero or Javier Mascherano would have picked up a booking in the semifinal and missed the final.

The other stain on this tournament has nothing to do with the players, but with CONMEBOL itself, rocked by a $110 million bribery and money-laundering scandal that saw top officials indicted and the current president, Juan Angel Napout (who has not been indicted), traveling only for the final.

(The head of an organization missing out on a tournament his body organizes? Why, that's crazy! That would be like Sepp Blatter staying away from a FIFA Women's World Cup ...)

CONMEBOL has sold the rights for the next four Copa Americas -- including next summer's Copa Centenario in the United States -- for $317.5m to a marketing company called Datisa, which was formed specifically to buy commercial and media rights for this tournament.

The fee seemed rather cheap and, according to the indictment, was a low-ball deal because Datisa paid bribes to CONMEBOL officials. Swiss authorities froze Datisa's bank accounts as a result of the investigation and that meant that Copa America organizers received only $35m of the $80m they were due for staging the competition. 

As a result, the payment of prize money and suppliers to the Copa has been delayed and, indeed, if the tournament was a logistical success, much of that must be down to the army of unpaid volunteers who were pressed into action.

Still, despite South American football's penchant for self-harm, it was a tense, entertaining and full-blooded Copa. In fact, it showed that international football can be something other than the procession of ho-hum qualifiers and pointless friendlies it so often appears to be, particularly in Europe.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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