In a competition featuring 12 teams, of which eight qualify for the knockout phase, falling at the first hurdle is a bitter pill to swallow. Yet in the cases of the first four eliminated sides at the Copa America 2011 - namely Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Costa Rica - the level of disappointment has differed vastly.
Bolivia, for their part, were the first squad to come together on Argentinian soil and also the first to take their leave. Gustavo Quinteros’s charges caught the eye early on thanks to a 1-1 opening draw with La Albiceleste, only to follow up that superb display with consecutive 2-0 defeats by Group A rivals Costa Rica and Colombia. La Verde thus extended their winless run in the Copa America to 16 games, stretching back to a 3-1 victory over Mexico on home soil on 25 June 1997.
“We didn’t have much time to work together, so what we were trying to do was find a settled squad with a view to the [Brazil 2014] qualifying phase,” said Quinteros. “And I think we managed to do that. When it comes to our first qualifier, I expect 80 per cent of the players who were in Argentina to form the core of the squad.”
Able to call upon their biggest names and guided by a coach with recent FIFA World Cup™ experience, Ecuador appeared well-placed to negotiate the group phase for the first time since 1997. However, Reinaldo Rueda’s team picked up just one point from three games. That came from a goalless draw with Paraguay, in which their keeper Marcelo Elizaga was voted man of the match.
Rueda reflected: “The work we’re doing is geared towards taking us to the World Cup, but this test, the Copa America, is one we’ve failed. We were careless, and we fell short in the key game against Venezuela. We’ll be carefully evaluating everything that’s happened over these three games.”
La Tri’s lacklustre showing in a Group B campaign that also featured 1-0 and 4-2 reverses by Venezuela and Brazil respectively, has also sown seeds of doubt among the media back home. “We’re heading for home with a really bitter taste in our mouths,” said 22-year-old striker Felipe Caicedo, whose two goals against A Seleção will provide a few crumbs of comfort for Ecuador fans. “We came here looking to achieve something big, and I think we deserved more than we got.”
CONCACAF duo feel the cost of inexperience
Mexico and Costa Rica, invited to represent CONCACAF, sent largely youth-based squads and will have learned valuable lessons from their time in Argentina. And Los Ticos coach Ricardo La Volpe can point to the fact that his side did at least pick up three points, thanks to the Group A win over Bolivia.
“It’s not easy to play with so many youngsters against teams packed with star names, but we didn’t do badly,” said the 59-year-old, who even had to forbid his players from having their photos taken with Lionel Messi or asking for his autograph ahead of the sides’ final group game.
Mexico found the going tougher, having had to replace no fewer than eight players due to disciplinary reasons on the eve of their opening match in Group C. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were beaten 2-1, 1-0 and 1-0 by Chile, Peru and Uruguay respectively.
“It wasn’t a good tournament by us, but I don’t consider it a failure,” said coach Luis Tena. “We came here with an U-22 squad and we then had to make wholesale last-minute changes. We didn’t go far wrong in footballing terms, though the same can’t for said for disciplinary matters.”
Los Aztecas thus fell a long way short of their Copa America highs of 1993 and 2001, when they went all the way to the final.
One of the more experienced members of the squad that came to Argentina, Tottenham Hotspur’s Giovani dos Santos, had this to say prior to heading for home: “Mexico should be sending a stronger side to a competition like this. But on a positive note this has been a useful experience for us all: now the younger lads know what playing in the Copa is really like.”