The Copa America — World Cup Paradox
The title might be a little misleading. But the best way to explain what I mean here is by giving some background and stats. 1916 was a monumental year for football in South America. To commemorate the 100 years of the Argentine Declaration of Independence from Spain, Argentina invited Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay to play the first edition of ‘Campeonato Sudamericano de Futbol’ or South-American Football Championship. This tournament would go on to become what we today know as ‘Copa America’. The same year, these four countries came together to form CONMEBOL, the oldest continental confederation in the world which manages South American football.
Since 1916, 47 such tournaments have been held in 106 years. This translated into nearly 0.45 tournaments per year. Compared to the World Cup or even Euros (held once every 4 years), this ratio is very high. It used to be even higher (>0.6) before the 60s. The sporadic nature of the tournament can be highlighted from the fact that 1959 saw the tournament being held twice* (Argentina and Uruguay being the respective winners) while there was also a period of 8 years between 1967 to 1975 when no tournament took place.
For good or bad, this has also led to several occurrences where a Copa America and a FIFA World Cup took place in consecutive years, 28 to be precise. If we limit this to times when a South American nation won the World Cup, we have 11 such instances. Now comes the key discovery. In any of these 11 occurrences, no team has ever won the FIFA World Cup and Copa America in consecutive years.
Just to be clear, twice has a World Cup winner gone on to win the following edition of Copa America. Uruguay won the World Cup in 1930 and Copa America in 1935. Similarly, Brazil followed its 2002 World Cup victory with the 2004 Copa America win. But these were not held in consecutive years.
Now, the obvious point of comparison here is the Euros. While the World Cup and Euros have always followed a two-year gap (this year might be an exception), there have been instances of countries winning consecutive tournaments. West Germany won Euro 1972 and the 1974 FIFA World Cup. France did the opposite by first winning the 1998 FIFA World Cup and then the Euro 2000. And then we have Spain, who have won both the Euros preceding and succeeding their 2010 FIFA World Cup win. Let’s also take into account the fact that only 16 European Championships have taken place compared to 47 Copa America equivalents.
To get a thorough look, let’s break down the entire Copa America history into four segments —
1916 to 1930 — Pre World Cup Days
Starting with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, more teams got into the fray as the tournament progressed, including Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru. But due to withdrawal by one team or the other, no edition saw more than 5 countries participating at once. Each team played one match against each of the other teams. 2 points for a win, 1 for a draw, and 0 for a loss. The team with the most points at the end of the day won the Championship. If teams were, tied on points, there used to be a play-off to decide the winner.
A total of 12 tournaments were played in this space. The Rioplatense sides, Uruguay and Argentina dominated in this period. Uruguay, who had won Olympic Golds in football in 1924 and 1928, were victories in 6 editions followed by Argentina in 4. Brazil with their twin home victories in 1919 and 1922 complete the set.
The 1929 tournament saw Argentina win at home in a dominant fashion, winning all three games with a goal difference of +8 (GF: 9, GA: 1). They carried this form into the 1930 FIFA World Cup, winning their group and thrashing USA 6–1 in the semifinal. In the final against Uruguay, they were 2–1 up at half-time. But their neighbors pulled a historic remontada in the second half, winning the match 4–2 and becoming the inaugural champions of the world.
1931 to 1958 — Argentine Golden Age
13 editions of the South American Championship were played in this period. Argentina, who played in 10 out of these 13, won 7, finished second twice (1935, 1942) and third once (1956). This period is often seen as the Golden Age of Argentine football. It saw the birth of River Plate’s ‘La Maquina’, one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. They defined the exuberant and free-flowing nature of football played in Argentina in those days.
Other teams to win during this period were Uruguay (1935, 1942, and 1956), Peru (1939), Brazil (1949), and Paraguay (1953). Like Argentina two decades prior, Brazil dominated the 1949 Copa America (GF: 39, GA: 7) and entered the 1950 FIFA World Cup as favorites. But once again, Uruguay spoiled the party, defeating them 2–1 at the Maracana. It was a setback that haunted the people of Brazil for ages.
The 1958 FIFA World Cup was a big turning point for South American football. While Argentina was finding success at the continental level, they couldn’t translate it at the international stage. From 1934 to 1958, they didn’t participate in any FIFA World Cup due to political reasons. Considering themselves to be the favorites in 1958, Argentine football was in for a cultural shock. Unable to handle the pace and physical nature of football played in Europe, not only did Argentina fail to make it past the group stage, but also faced a humiliating 6–1 defeat against Czechoslovakia, their (joint) biggest loss to date.
On the other hand, Brazil entered the tournament with an extremely strong team and a new 4-at-the-back formation. Yet, they were far from the favorites. After a successful group stage outing and a 1–0 victory over Wales in the quarter-final, the Samba nation caught pace. They dominated the proceedings against France and Sweden in the semi-final and the final respective. Both the matches were won with a scoreline of 5–2, with a certain 17-year old called Pele scoring a hattrick and a brace respectively.
1959 to 1990 — World Cup Glory
In the context of this article, this is the most fascinating period. 9 editions of Copa America were played in this duration. However, if we remove Argentina’s victory in 1959 and Brazil’s in 1989, there is an almost 30 year-long period when neither of the teams won this tournament. Can you guess what else happened in the meanwhile? Both these teams won the World Cup! Twice!
Let's look at some of the finer details here. Firstly, the old tournament format of each team playing the other once continued till 1967. As mentioned earlier, this was followed by an eight-year gap. An article by Scoot Murray on The Guardian says —
there wasn’t another tournament for eight years, with federations struggling to gather their best players, most of whom were now gadding around in Europe, where the big money was.
In 1975, CONMEBOL revived the tournament, naming it ‘Copa America’ and adopting a new format where teams were divided into groups followed by knockout rounds. This revamped version saw the tournament being hosted across multiple countries till 1983, post which they went back to the single host format.
Back in 1959, Argentina won the tournament at home but they faced stiff competition from Brazil. Interestingly, this was the only edition of Copa where Pele participated, even finishing the top scorer with 8 goals. In 1963 Bolivia won their first and only South American Championship. Being the host, adverse weather conditions must have certainly worked in their favor. But the squads of Argentina and Brazil that played here are almost mutually exclusive to the ones selected for the 1962 FIFA World Cup. It’s almost like they sent a second team to this tournament.
The revamped version of Copa America gave some interesting finals initially. Peru defeated Colombia in the final of 1975 while Paraguay beat Chile in 1979. But there was also Uruguay, who overtook Argentina as the most successful side, with victories in 1959, 1967, 1983, and 1987. La Celeste was in for a hattrick in 1989. But Romario and Bebeto spearheaded Brazil to their first Copa in 40 years.
1991 to present— Brazil and Co.
The biggest development during this period was inviting guest teams to participate in Copa. Mexico, which has now participated in the tournament 10 times, also happened to finish runners-up on a couple of occasions. Other guest invitees included Costa Rica, USA, Jamaica, Japan, etc.
In this period stretching a little over 30 years, Brazil has emerged as the most successful side. They have 5 wins in 13 (6 in 14 if we include 1989). They were at their peak during the late 90s and early 2000s, winning four out of five between 1997 and 2007. As then World Champions, they were favorites to win in 1995 too. But Uruguay, led by the legendary Enzo Francescoli, had other plans in the final.
Argentina started this period strong, winning the tournament in 1991 and 1993. The talismanic forward Gabriel Batistuta happened to be their top scorer on both occasions. Maradona, who failed to win the tournament in 1979, 1987, and 1989, could have had a winners medal now had he been fit enough for selection. However, it took Argentina 28 years to win the tournament again, finishing runners-up on four occasions in between.
Other winners included Uruguay (1995 and 2011), Colombia(2001), and Chile (2015 and 2016). The most fascinating of these was Chile. One of the founding members of this tournament and confederation, Chile failed to win a single Copa in the initial 99 years but won twice in the next two years.
Why has this pattern existed? No particular reason it seems. There have been times when teams didn’t send their best players, like Brazil in 1963. In some cases, the World Cup win itself seems like an anomaly, like Argentina in 1986 (given Bilardo’s overall record as Argentina’s manager isn’t that great). Sometimes, the host nation would put on a strong display, like Colombia in 2001. Change in the format like in 1975 could have also had an impact. But more often than not, it’s just pure luck or randomness.
What this has resulted in, though, is that arguably the two greatest footballers of all time, Pele and Maradona, never won this tournament. Messi could have been on this esteemed list had it not been for his heroics in 2021. Some of the other greats we could include here are Brazil’s Garrincha, Zico, Socrates, and more recently Neymar, as well as Passarella, Kempes, and Riquelme for Argentina. Outside the big two, we have Figueroa (Chile), Valderrama (Colombia), Chilavert (Paraguay), and many more to add to this list.
What a lot of people might not know, is that Alfredo Di Stefano boasts of a winner’s medal too. Best known for his time at Real Madrid, Di Stefano during his River Plate days was part of the La Albiceleste team that won the South American Championship in 1947. In fact, those were his only international appearances for Argentina.
Now, if you are a fan of Argentina, should their win in 2021 worry you for the upcoming World Cup, given the pattern that has existed. Probably not looking at how random this stat is. As Ebbe Skovdahl said, statistics are like mini-skirts — they give you good ideas but hide the important things.
Afterword: The idea of this article struck me while I was reading Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina by Jonathan Wilson. A great book on the history of Argentine football, very detailed and comprehensive.