In front of 70,000 revellers at the Maracana, Brazil prolonged their record of having won the Copa America each time they have hosted the tournament by beating Peru 3-1 on Sunday evening.
Despite it being the Mecca of Brazilian football, this was only the host’s third game at the iconic stadium since a 2013 friendly against England and the Confederations Cup final win over Spain in the same year, which tricked Brazil into being fooled about its standing in the international power ranks after overcoming the reigning world and European champions at the time.
Still, this Copa America had been viewed as a chance to exorcise some of those demons from their home World Cup and Tite, rumoured to be leaving his post whether Brazil were victorious or not, oversaw his proud nation’s march all the way to the final this time around.
Expecting to face one of the other favourites in holders Chile, Colombia, Argentina or Uruguay, it was their Group A foes Peru, who they had trounced 5-0 in Sao Paulo a fortnight ago, that stood in their way of claiming a first piece of major silverware in 12 years.
Beating the Chileans 3-0 in the semi-final, the underdogs lead by Ricardo Gareca were much improved and had not conceded a goal since the sides’ previous meeting.
Starting well again on Sunday evening too, they allowed Brazil to do little in the opening 10 minutes with quality pressing, composure and defensive stubbornness. Made a fool of by man of the match and goalscorer Everton at the Arena Corinthians, right back Luis Advincula was a pacy, physically imposing presence as were the rest of his team-mates, marking Brazil’s skilful wide-men and forwards in numbers.
On the one occasion in the first quarter of an hour they yielded a slither of time and space to Gabriel Jesus, however, the Manchester City No 9 found the break-out star known as the Little Onion at the back post with a brilliant assist to put Brazil ahead and set the Maracana alight.
After the goal, Brazil began settling into the tie with Arthur finding some success in getting the leaders’ passing game moving. At the end of a swift exchange down the left flank, Roberto Firmino found his former Liverpool colleague Philippe Coutinho at the near-post, and he almost converted past Pedro Gallese.
On a subsequent dangerous move also instigated by the Barcelona midfielder, Jesus was booked during a clash on the edge of the box. Long balls started to be effective too though, as seen when Alex Sandro found Firmino with one close to half-time that the recent Champions League winner headed just over the bar.
And then came the potential game-changer on 40 minutes. When Peru managed to thread the ball into the box, the referee gave a penalty for Thiago Silva’s handball on the ground.
As Paolo Guerrero, an ex-Corinthians and Flamengo man well known to Brazilian football lovers booed from the offset, waited at the spot, Tobar Vargas consulted VAR and was finally cheered by the home supporters for a moment before sticking to his decision anyway.
Guerrero slipped the ball past Alisson, breaking a run of nine clean sheets for the Liverpool shot-stopper, headed off to the corner flag with his machine gun celebration that fired off a creepy air of uncertainty and nerves that swept across the Maracana.
Yet any thoughts of a repeat of the darkest hour in national footballing folklore – the 1950 World Cup final defeat at this very stadium against Uruguay – were short lived. Finally rewarded for his constant production, Arthur released at just the right time and found Gabriel Jesus running into the box.
Granting the 22-year-old wonder-kid the chance to score his second in two games after having previously gone nine matches in major tournaments without finding the net, Brazil went down the tunnel at the interval with one hand on the trophy.
After the break, Arthur was again in full flow. A man on a mission, he constantly palmed the ball off to those around him and clapped in anticipation to get it back when pushing his team forward for one more that would put the tie beyond reach.
His ex-Gremio comrade having more success with his trickery on the flank at the expense of Advincula, he spotted Everton who crossed in for Firmino to head wide with a bullet bouncing header.
Now, just 30 minutes stood between Brazil and South America’s most prestigious international cup, but it was around this time that Peru started to creep back into the proceedings with a series of dangerous balls in the box. Taking Jesus out of the game, as the rightfully carded Carlos Zambrano literally did when booting him off the Maracana turf, was also a priority.
Moments after, the City prodigy, about to be replaced by Richarlison to play things safe, received his second yellow for jumping into an aerial challenge recklessly. Punching and shoving the VAR box in disgust, he left his side with 10 men to wade through a further 20-plus minutes of tense play.
Edison Flores’ ripping shot beat Alisson but was too wide to level the score for a second time, before Richarlison replaced Firmino to adulation as a fondly-remembered star of local outfit Fluminense.
In quick succession, Real Madrid’s Eder Militao replaced Coutinho to shut up shop and Peru made their own changes with Raul Ruidaz taking Yoshimar Yotun’s place 12 minutes from time.
But the frustrated trailers could only lash out in frustration as Advincula received a yellow for launching Everton, man of the match again here and the tournament’s top scorer overall, into the air.
The Little Onion would not be deterred, he was foolishly shoulder-checked and awarded a penalty that, for a second time, saw VAR consulted before Vargas stuck to his guns.
Up stepped Richarlison and put the tie beyond all doubt. The whole squad dancing in a pongo with arms around each other, flares were let off in the stands as shirts were swung above bare naked chests and beer bellies.
Cries of ‘É Campeão!!!’ rang around the Maracana and they knew it was close as Napoli enforcer Allan was brought on for reinforcements. Just a minute of extra time added, Vargas blew his whistle for the last time as Brazil were again kings of the continent for the first time since 2007 and for the ninth time in their proud history.
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