Darfur United: The Incredible Football team of the Sudanese Genocide Refugee Camp

An enthralling story about the Darfur United Football Club, and how football is inspiring the movement to bring hope to the refugee camps at the Chad–Sudan border. This piece has been narrated by Srinwantu Dey and features an exclusive interview of executive director of iACT, Gabriel Stauring – the pioneer of the vision.

Like any other day, Ismail’s mother was walking to their village’s market one fine morning, when all hell broke loose. On that infamous day, a few days before civil war broke out in the Darfur region of western Sudan, the pro-Government militia gang of Janjaweed attacked civilians. Major armed conflict in Sudan started in February 2003 when the rebel groups of Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) revolted against the government of Sudan to protest against the growing oppression of Darfur’s non-Arab citizens. Janjaweed is the notorious Sudanese native militia group that mostly recruits indigenous Afro-Arabians. The Sudanese Government used it against rebel groups and civilians when insurgence escalated in 2003. Ismail’s father was shot and badly hurt right in front of his mother.  As he lay on the ground—dying—Ismail and his mother came and sat next to him, desperately seeking aid and trying to give him some relief. Ismail’s father foresaw the miseries awaiting his family. He asked his wife to take all their seven children and escape this death zone.  Ismail asked his mother to find the other young children, and he went to collect some animals for the long walk towards Chad’s border. Unfortunately, his father died. The mother and her seven children managed to survive, and all of them now live as refugees in Chad.

Darfur Genocide in different phases
Darfur Conflict – in different phases

You know my mother. We met before”, Ismail uttered in broken English. They were in an aeroplane, flying to Iraq. He had a small Polaroid picture in his hand; he was looking at it and was showing it to the other man sitting next to him. That was his mother with his other siblings in the picture. The man identified his mother. He had met Ismail before, when he was younger. Such coincidence! Ismail kept telling him their stories, about their homes, and their lives in the refugee camp. Ismail was flying to Iraq in 2012 to participate in the World Cup for non-FIFA nations—VIVA World Cup. The VIVA World Cup is an international football tournament organized by the New Federation Board for teams not affiliated with FIFA. It was held every two years. Ismail was one of the two goalkeepers of the team, and a born leader. Yes, you read it right. The Darfur refugee camp has a football team of its own! The team members have endured unbelievable hardships of the vast refugee camp of Chad, escaping from the terror of genocide.  Yet, they have continued to play—for their life, for their existence.

Meet the other man in the scenario—Gabriel Stauring. He is the executive director of iACT—a Los Angeles-based organization providing humanitarian action to aid, empower, and extend hope to those affected by mass atrocities. He and his team have been tirelessly working in the Darfur refugee camp (and many other locations) since 2005. Those were the days before refugees were a “trending topic”, the tragic photograph of the toddler had not become viral, and Bayern Munich or AS Roma weren’t showing their support. Stauring and his colleagues were the silent workers who facilitated refugee-led education and human rights programmes that built resilience and cultivated recovery in refugee camps in eastern Chad. Not only that, he pioneered the idea of Darfur refugee camp’s football team as well. “After many trips and many duffel bags full of balls and equipment delivered to the camps, in 2011 we heard of an opportunity to create a team and take them to compete in a tournament for non-FIFA teams in Iraqi Kurdistan”, said Gabriel. The vision of a football team was about to take shape. This was the time when all other humanitarian organisations (including UN) had started reducing their aids and services to the long-suffering crisis zone and FIFA, as world football’s governing body, had taken no significant step in utilizing football to help the community.

The iACT team giving a theoretical lesson to the DU players in the training camp
The iACT team giving a theoretical lesson to the DU players in the training camp

Since 2003, the Darfur region of western Sudan has been the site of terrible misery, violence, blood-shed, death, and displacement. It has led to the death of thousands of people and the displacement of more than two million Sudanese. United Nations has described it as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The United States government has termed it “genocide”, comparing it to the gory 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of people remain in camps across the border in eastern Chad, reluctant to return home even after a whole decade because of the ongoing insecurity, loss of property, and fear of oppression. These refugees remain dependent on humanitarian aid for survival. Gabriel and his team were one of them. The lives inside the camps were not even close to being privileged. It is a different kind of world, where, as soon as people go outside the camp, near the border, they get attacked by Janjaweed. Numerous women have been reported abused and raped while collecting wood outside the camp. There is scarcely enough drinking water to stay alive, and refugees face an acute lack of nutritious food and a growing risk of a Hepatitis E outbreak.

Darfur United
Darfur United training camp on rough desert patches

However, these people haven’t lost hope. Remember Terry George’s touching drama “Hotel Rwanda”, where Paul Rusesabagina (portrayed by Don Cheadle) stood tall and saved the lives of over a thousand of refugees amidst a political genocide? The lives of Darfuri refugees are not much different. Health, food, shelter, education, safety, clothing, belonging—the basic needs of humanity have been harshly compromised. Kudos to Gabriel and his iACT team for doing what they do. Rusesabagina provided the refugees shelter; the good folks of iACT provided them hope and joy—they built a football team.

So, why football?

From my very first trip to the refugee camps in 2005, I could see that there was something powerful about what football could do to the spirit of a child who had experienced severe trauma. When I brought out a ball and started playing with them, they were no longer refugees or survivors. They were footballers, experiencing the same joy that any child around experiences when kicking a ball with friends” answered Gabriel. Children, probably, have the worst standard of living in these camps. Like Ismail, most of them are still reeling from some sort of severe trauma. Some of them have seen their parents or siblings being shot in front of their own eyes, some were abducted and still get nightmares, while some have seen their own houses set on fire. A drawing exhibition by refugee children back in 2005 reflected these horrific incidents. One teenager drew a squadron of helicopters in the sky above a house on fire, while another drew anonymous men pointing guns at family members. The situations were such that frightened children couldn’t sleep properly due to severe trauma, let alone have a healthy existence. And what can uplift the spirit of distressed kids more than the beautiful game?

Darfur United
No infrastructure yet no lack of passion for the Darfur refugees

They started playing in the desert, amidst the crisis. They started playing to rebuild their lives. They started playing to rise above dark memories. “First of all, soccer brings them joy. The value of that is immeasurable. Their lives are difficult, and there is a loss of hope, as they see the world leave them behind. But soccer keeps them connected with that world and with a sense of hope”, Gabriel expressed. “The Darfur United Team offers hope and gives Darfuris a vehicle to tell their stories to the world.” It was named “Darfur United”.

“First of all, soccer brings them joy. The value of that is immeasurable. Their lives are difficult, and there is a loss of hope, as they see the world leave them behind. But soccer keeps them connected with that world and with a sense of hope”

The task was not easy. There were logistical, financial, and motivational issues to consider while making a team from people still suffering from the memories of the brutal genocide. However, when the team heard about the tournament to be held at Kurdistan, Gabriel’s team started to reach out to several refugee leaders and started asking the refugees themselves. The response was significantly positive. They discovered that the passion for football still survived in the midst of heartbreak and trauma. “The camps are divided, the same way most of the world is divided, in their loyalties. About half love Barcelona, and the other half love Real Madrid.” Gabriel told us. “Somehow, children are wearing jerseys with the names of their football heroes, Messi and Ronaldo, and they have heated discussions about who is the better player.

darfur united
The women and kids of the Refugee Camp are watching a practise session of the lads

The Darfur United Soccer Academy (DUSA) was launched initially with two camps and they have a plan to extend the project to 12 camps within the next two years. DUSA is a comprehensive child development football curriculum that works with refugee men and women to provide a safer place for refugee children to learn the game, maintaining health. “The DU Soccer Academy provides a space for them to thrive and participate in something positive. The children see their coaches, who are refugees themselves, and it gives them something to aspire to. The Academy also teaches about leadership, mindfulness, and caring about each other.”, Gabriel affirmed. Darfur United is a team selected from 12 camps from different tribes. It is more than just a team for the refugee camp now. When international media and other organizations forgot them and their problems, Darfur United helped them to reach out to the world. These people, who had lost most of their families in the unending violence of their nation, played like a band of brothers. “Now we are a part of the world,” exclaimed a refugee leader. However, the best part of all this is that these people now have their own home-grown heroes to look up to. Children want to be like Moubarak Haggar, their own hero from one of the camps who scored the first and only goal for Darfur United in the VIVA World Cup at Iraqi Kurdistan. The goal was against the Western Saharan team, though Darfur went on to lose the match 5–1.

For obvious reasons, this has been a difficult journey for everyone involved. The extreme remoteness of the Chad–Sudan border was itself a giant obstacle. The team started playing football inside the camp, on dirt fields, and mostly without shoes.  The situation was hostile too. These were young kids recovering from severe trauma and deprivation. Many team members hated each other initially. Another problematic area was conflict between the tribes. Though Arabic is the common language which all the tribes of Darfur speak, they all have their own tribal languages that they speak among themselves.  Gabriel recalled one such incident: “There were issues from day one. On our very first meeting with the players, they stated that they did not want to mix with members of tribes that were not their own, and that they wanted the tents that would be their homes for the tryouts and training to be assigned depending on the refugee camps they came from. It was an important moment because this could set the tone for the rest of that tournament and even for the team in general going forward.  Right then, we told them that it was not going to be an option. They would have to be united, just as the name of their team said.  They would have to be a true team, working together and taking care of each other—on and off the field. If anyone did not like it, they could leave.” Fortunately, everyone opted to stay back. The beauty of the game overpowered tribal conflict. It was a big win. 60 odd players initially turned up for the trial and 20 of them were selected to stay in camp Djabal and train for two months. The final team of 16 flew to Iraq in 2012 to play the VIVA World Cup. It was the first plane ride and five-star hotel stay for most of them. Also, most importantly, they played like a team representing a forgotten community. When they did return after those two months, all players who belonged to different camps and tribes were united like a family. They were teaching each other their tribal languages, sharing stories about their families and camps, and creating bonds that would last forever. Players like Ismail who lost their close ones are now inspiration for thousands. Gabriel echoed, “Football has immense power to bring people together, if used in a positive and inclusive way.

Darfur United
United we stand – the mantra for survival

Darfur is still on fire. Villages are being burnt and buried, and violence has escalated severely. Millions of people are still displaced and waiting to return. Millions more are missing. Mass rapes have become common practice. However, the government has not shown any intention of curbing the armed civil war. Slowly, the media and humanitarian organizations are losing interest, funding, and resources. These people in those refugee camps of Chad-Sudanese border are still surviving on a thread of hope. Darfur United has created a new identity for these displaced children, something to keep them fighting for.

Remember the last line of the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ where Pat Archer asked “They said that there wasn’t any room? while walking with his family towards the bus; Paul Rusesabagina smiled and answered “There’s always room.


Special Thanks to executive director of iACT Gabriel Stauring and Director of Operations and Community Involvement of iACT Katie-Jay Scott Stauring for your kind participation and support. The images are solely copyrighted to iACT org.

If anyone is interested to be part of the project or wishes to donate to this great cause please avail this link.

Javier Zanetti: Ascent of Soul

Srinwantu Dey writes on Javier Zanetti, humanity and life of a divine poet of the late Medieval period. The story traverses through the other life of Javier that often intersects with the lyrics of ‘Divine Comedy’.

Explaining Javier Zanetti requires a colossal effort. It is the life of a man, who came from a notorious harbour of Buenos Aires and went on to become a parable of Milan. Javier Zanetti doesn’t reflect the dazzling appearance of a diabolic guitarist; rather, he resembles a calm serene pianist. He is as soulful as Władysław Szpilman, as portrayed in Roman Polanski’s famous work, playing Chopin’s Ballade in G minor amidst an abandoned Nazi-infested city. Zanetti knows his keys and notes very well, but the omnipresent question remains unsolved—how much we know him? To know him, we must learn his philosophy, grace of character, and shades of life.

Milan was the Mecca of Futurist Movement in the 20th century and Javier Zanetti was the epitome of the anthem, “grande…tradizionale e futurista” (“grand…traditional and futuristic”). He personified surreal modesty, lyrical gamesmanship, and unrivalled credibility. For me, he is “grand”, “traditional”, yet “futuristic”. His political inclination and socialist activities are well known and often thought to be left-wing politics in disguise. However, as I have mentioned earlier, explaining Javier “Pupi” Zanetti is not so easy. His life and vision can only be compared to the vastness of an epic. He is a man of renaissance and his life simulates the depth of epic like Divina Commedia—the autobiographical allusion of Dante, the great Italian poet of the Middle Ages. The illustrious career of Zanetti that spanned over three decades saw different shades of life—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (Hell, Purification, and Heaven), as the poet illustrated. Dante’s Inferno is an allegorical work depicting his afterlife. Similarly, Zanetti’s life is also a story of travelling from rags to riches.

Figure 1: Zapatista rebels unveiling Zanetti's #4 shirt to show his support. Source: El Paso
Zapatista rebels unveiling Zanetti’s #4 shirt to show his support [Source: El Paso]

His vast life includes the glittering podium of Madrid as well as the rebellious lands of Chiapas, from the notorious Dock Sud district to the charity houses of Buenos Aires—truly a journey through the extremes of both the realms, hell and heaven. As Divine Comedy tells us, “Segui il tuo corso et lascia dir les genti (Follow your road and let the people say)”, Zanetti created his own legacy. For the Nerazzurri, their “Il Capitano” is more precious than Michelangelo’s last sculpture. The journey from Banfield to Inter was not easy; the journey from there to donning a club record of 815 caps was even more difficult. Inter was the love of his life, perhaps comparable to Dante’s love for Beatrice. Beatrice was Dante’s inspiration for his poetry, politics, and survival. Inter had similarities with Zanetti, who was not a born Interista, but described himself as half-Italian. Like the poet who fell in love at first sight at the age of nine, he donned the famous black and blue shirt in his early twenties and the imprint lasted forever—something that Italian literature celebrates as “Amore”.

Can we term him a communist? Considering his left-wing political leanings, the answer would probably be yes. His connection with the extreme left Zapatista Movement that fights for indigenous Mexican’s rights for their native land and resource is well known. The armed anti-globalization struggles for democracy on the valleys of Southern Mexico, surrounded by misty mountains and para-militants, drew the attention of multiple leftist groups. The state of indigenous people and their lack of resources moved Pupi intensely, and, being a politically conscious person, he was deeply involved with the crusade. He didn’t hesitate to participate actively, much like Dante. The latter’s life had been an intensely political one as well. He, being loyal to the Guelphs family, was involved in complex conflict with the Ghibellines, who were backed by the Great Roman Emperor—a situation that is very similar to the modern day left and right-wing conflicts.

Figure 2 Zanetti discussing with President Moratti [Source: L'Ultimo Uomo]
Zanetti discussing with President Moratti [Source: L’Ultimo Uomo]

Historically, Inter Milan was right-wing inclined and was then backed by Massimo Moratti’s oligarchy of oil money. It was really remarkable to convince such an establishment to support far left-wing activities in Mexico. Nerazzurri fans are often referred as “bauscia” (nouveau riche) as historically they have been composed mostly of upper-middle bourgeoisie people from Milanese societies. On the other hand, Milan fans are known as “casciavit” (screwdrivers) because of their proletarian origin. In Italy the difference is huge. Milanistas are mostly prone to support the Communist Party of Italy (PCI), a party that had once been outlawed by Mussolini in the pre-war era. Inter ultras are mostly dominated by far right-wing groups. Amidst this political conundrum, convincing the “bauscia” to support leftist ideologies was a herculean task. However, Javier Zanetti was a person from the future. He retained his smile, he retained his character, he retained his flat combed hairstyle that his mother introduced, and he listened to the 90s Argentine band Los Piojos or the soul music of blue musician Zucchero Fornaciari. Yet, he thought ahead of the modern society. When Moratti signed Zanetti and his Argentine compatriot, Independiente forward, Sebastián Rambert as his first two transfers, it was in the news that the Independiente star was far more talented than the quiet boy from Banfield. Not only Rambert, Zanetti had to fight with two other giant foreign recruits to earn his place—Roberto Carlos and Paul Ince (this was when the Italian league still had the policy of playing not more than three foreign players in the first eleven). Zanetti slowly and silently affirmed his credibility to play for 18 long years, while Rambert was loaned out without playing a single minute for Inter. Moratti and then captain Giuseppe Bergomi not only spotted the talent in this supremely gifted footballer, but also discovered an ambassador who wouldn’t give up his purity at any cost. He functioned silently, built the purest form of credibility, grew like a magnificent Centurion tree and became the biggest ambassador of Internazionale heritage and community. He changed their philosophy from inside. Inter ended up funding sports, water, and health projects in the area of operation in Chiapas to support the struggle of indigenous people.

Coming from a difficult childhood where he had to help his bricklayer father for a living and work as a milk delivery boy to support his wage-less stint for a local club, Pupi didn’t find it easy to cope with Massimo Moratti’s extraordinary expectation at the heart of the Milan city.

Zanetti, apart from being a proud Argentine, is a true Milanese—someone who savours traditional Milan cuisine, someone whose family religiously follows the Olimpia Milano basketball team, and someone who celebrates “Beneamata”[1] with fervour. In short, he is a true symbol of globalization. How is it, then, that he is a protagonist for an anti-globalization struggle? Well, Zanetti was never too fond of neo-globalization movements. His fondness towards Milanese culture was because of his loyalty to the Nerazzurri and due to inspiration from some special people around him. One of them was Giacinto Facchetti, who is referred as Captain of Captains at Inter and in Italy. Giacinto’s role in Pupi’s life was like a friend, philosopher, and guide in his “Inferno” state of life. Coming from a difficult childhood where he had to help his bricklayer father for a living and work as a milk delivery boy to support his wage-less stint for a local club, Pupi didn’t find it easy to cope with Massimo Moratti’s extraordinary expectation at the heart of the Milan city. Deep down his heart, he probably felt identified with the indigenous people who were waiting for a miracle. The miracle came as a gentle breeze while he was touring South Africa. Daniel Passarella himself knocked at his door with the news of Inter’s interest in him. His life changed from there, and then he met  Giacinto—one of Inter’s greatests. “Giacinto was a ‘hombre vertical’, as we say in Argentina”, he wrote in his autobiography, “a gentle giant who commanded respect”. Giacinto always used carry a diary where he had a quote of Leo Tolstoy written on the front page. The quote can be interpreted as: “The more we believe our existence depends solely on our actions, the more this becomes possible”. Pupi followed his ideology, and today his actions definitely speak for him. What Giacinto was to Pupi, the great scholar Brunetto Latini was to Dante. Giancinto’s influence on Zanetti can be explained appropriately by the verses of Inferno (Divine Comedy) where the poet hailed his guardian:

“A radiance among men and speaks with gratitude of that sweet image, gentle and paternal,
you were to me in the world when hour by hour
you taught me how man makes himself eternal”

Figure 3 Next Zanettis? Balaclava clad students from Inter Football campus of Chiapas. [Source: Inter.it]
Next Zanettis? Balaclava clad students from Inter Football campus of Chiapas. [Source: Inter.it]

Another person who inspired Pupi was his then-captain, Giuseppe “Beppe” Bergomi. Within a few days of joining Inter, Pupi participated in a charity program driven by his captain. He instantly understood that he was in the right place, with the right people, and with the right values to serve the people who need help. His encouragement for supporting the Guerrilla Revolution initially created much havoc among the right wing fans (created similar stir in the other half of Milan as well), but their beloved “Il Capitano”, the ambassador of the great game and humanity, convinced the fans with his immense integrity. Today, the fans are proud of these activities of the club. Calling Pupi a left-wing politician is an understatement and far from the fact. He led his life according to his own philosophy, and, for me, he was never a text-book communist. His Papal connection and affinity towards the Vatican City are well known. He was known for praying to Saint Rita in the hotel room before the Champions League final in Madrid. If you ask him about his idol footballer, he will probably mention Lothar Matthäus, not the Latin American legend and his fellow Argentine, Diego Maradona. He kept intact the old assurances of working class solidarity while being in a club mostly funded by conservative bourgeoisie society. He kept playing his piano, no matter how bad the fire was raging outside. Restricting Javier ‘Pupi’ Zanetti to just a “communist” is injustice, he stretches himself to the realm of “humanist”.

Today Inter runs a football campus in the villages of Chiapas, where more than a hundred Zapatista kids take education and football lessons. “There must always be values at the heart of sport, and this is what we have to teach children,” said Zanetti. Zanetti has great sportsman spirit, and is an eccentric loyalist, who takes his wife on his shoulder while enjoying a beach holiday to overcome the absence of a gymnasium. He never ditched Inter and kept his ideology upright even after situations like in the winter of 2000 when Inter fans threw a Molotov cocktail at the team bus before a Cup match against Parma, or in 2006 where he was punched by a few thug fans at Milan’s Malpensa airport after a shocking Champions League exit at Villarreal. He was a passive person, but fans loved him. They made a chant for him in his early days, which roughly translates to this: “Among the Nerazzurri there’s / A player that / Dribbles like Pelé / go Zanetti”

“Tra i Nerazzurri c’è
un giocatore che
dribbla come Pelé
daì Zanetti alè!”

Figure 4 The weeping beauty at Pupi's farewell match [Source: Daily Mail]
The weeping beauty at Pupi’s farewell match [Source: Daily Mail]

When Beppe Bergomi ended his glorious career in 1999, and senior goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca moved to Bologna, Zanetti was chosen to carry the flag and was given the captain’s arm-band. Till date, Zanetti remains their only foreign club captain apart from Inter’s first-ever captain Hernst Marktl (Swiss). Many thought he was not leader material. Initially, Laurent Blanc or Luigi Di Biagio played the role of the leader on the pitch. However, Pupi didn’t take much time to reincarnate as a real leader and that had been possible because his team mates had extraordinary faith in him. Iván Zamorano, Iván Córdoba, Esteban Cambiasso, Roberto Baggio, all were extremely close friends of Pupi and were inspired to contribute in multiple charitable works as well. Zanetti and his wife Paula founded the “Fundación PUPI” in 2001 to aid the deprived street children of Argentina. In his book, Capitano e Gentiluomo, he mentioned, “As soon as he saw us arriving, Martin shot up on his feet and started running madly. “Javier! Paula!” he shouted as he ran towards us, ready to embrace us. I was shocked and not for the immeasurable spontaneous love and affection but because up to a few months ago, Martin couldn’t speak; deaf and mute.” Zanetti, who is also a FIFA ambassador for the SOS Children’s Villages project in Argentina, established another charity organisation along with his Inter team mate Esteban Cambiasso called “Leoni di Potrero”, aimed at helping youngsters with social difficulties. The everlasting smile he has on his face embodies the satisfaction of humanist Javier Zanetti. He is a new age polymath, an exceptional Renaissance man who takes football surrealism beyond the degree of miracles. His honesty for his profession, his legacy, his unparalleled loyalty and, above all, his humanity eventually helped him to attain the Paradiso—where Dante allegorically travelled through the heaven guided by his love “Beatrice” to symbolize the ascent of soul.

“But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars”

There are very few characters in the football community who were applauded by opponent fans. Pupi is one among that rare breed. A family of Udinese fans once carried a banner with the line “Football without Zanetti is like the sun without stars. A bunch of Napoli fans once waved another banner saying Zanetti, you have entered in the history of our hearts. Zanetti’s career coincided with the increasing grip of commercialisation in football, and, especially, how the powers-that-be have capitalised on the advancements of globalisation. When he started his career in 1992, there was no Bosman Rule (or its implications for player-power), Rupert Murdoch was still flirting with the FA, the Champions League had only just evolved from the European Cup, and Nike were yet to involve themselves in the game. It’s safe to say football has changed before his eyes more radically in twenty years than it has done at any other point in its history. Throughout all this, however, the maestro has remained unchallenged like the “il Sommo Poeta” (“the Supreme Poet”) who witnessed the renaissance of mankind.

Explaining Javier Zanetti is a colossal task because the man himself imposes a colossal presence. His life is a learning curve, his acts are spreading love, and his immortal legacy will be there to inspire us, forever.


[1]: La Beneamata: the beloved one in Italy and another nickname for Internazionale

[2]: The quotes of Zanetti are taken from the translated version of his autobiography Giocare da uomo (Play like a man) and another version of biography ‘The Tractore (il Capitano)’.

A Chaos Theory Experiment on Copa America 2011

Butterfly Effect?

Followed by controversies and heartbreaks, the Copa America 2011, looked like an Elephant’s Graveyard with early exits of many a favourable team along with the host nation, and also marked by one of the lowest scoring football events of recent times. We saw one of the best players of this generation being booed by his home fans and arguably the greatest football playing nation of all time making a mockery of their pride with a horrendous penalty shoot out show.

The quarter finals were a recipe for utter chaos. Few could have imagined the kind of semi final line-up we would end up with. One false step in tactical play and you are knocked out. Early exits of big guns put an even bigger question on the team fluidity, formation and cohesion. Squad and tactical choices by the master planners played a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the matches. Most of the predictions were not meted out. One may comfortably say that the latest edition of Copa America has been no exception to the Chaos Theory.

It has been observed that the presence or absence of a butterfly flapping its wings could lead to creation or absence of a hurricane. In Chaos Theory, this phenomenon is referred to as the Butterfly Effect. In the world of football, I’d say managers and their predispositions to certain tactical choices induce this butterfly effect! This tournament can be considered a fine instance of such an occurrence. Let’s delve into some of the tactical strategies employed by the 8 quarter-finalists, or should we say,

map the butterfly effects behind this Chaos Theory.

Brazil: Poor Finishing Finishes Job

The reigning champions came with their new coach, Mano Menezes following a quarterfinal shock exit at the World Cup. Dunga preferred Brazil to play in a counter attacking style with a solid defensive line and Kaká at the centre of the park for creative excellence. He made the more defensive minded Felipe Melo a game breaker and posed Luís Fabiano as the target man. His defense-oriented strategy garnered a lot of criticism.


Menezes got rid of his predecessor’s strategy and came with a dynamic 4-2-1-3 formation. Brazil’s 4-2-1-3 initially had Dani Alves as the right wing back dropping Maicon, as a result of his flying performance with Barcelona last season. The two central defenders Lúcio and

Thiago Silva played well but André Santos was a surprise selection for left back.The team’s performance was expected to rely mostly on the two midfield pivots – Lucas and Ramires. The Santos sensation, Ganso had a similar role to play like Kaká. He employed Neymar, Pato and Robinho as the three. roaming forwards. It was a striker-less formation, which can be converted to 4-2-3-1 (with Pato upfront) or 4-2-2-2 (putting Robinho a little down) whenever required.

Tactical Analysis: Dani vs. Maicon

Coach Mano Menezes received strong criticism from the pundits during a friendly match against France when he had substituted a forward with a midfielder while trailing 0-1. Menezes’ team had a poor start followed by a goal-less draw against Venezuela and a not-so-impressive 2-2 draw against Paraguay. In these games, Dani Alves started as the first choice right back. But the strategy did not work as per expectations. Alves is the kind of player who can exploit free space off-the-ball. He does the same in Barcelona colours when Lionel Messi cuts inside with a defender. Robinho being more of a wide player, effectively created much traffic on Dani’s path. Menezes’ next match line- up was more sensible when he picked Jádson over Robinho, who plays in a narrower role. Maicon, however, was given a chance in place of the Barcelona full back. Maicon is definitely more comfortable with the ball and more secure defensively than Alves. His inclusion in the team accommodated Robinho in the top half. Maicon did pretty decently when given the chance and made the wing-play better. While Alves, the former Sevilla man attempted 6 crosses from the right with 16%

accuracy, Maicon delivered 17 crosses with nearly 30% accuracy.

What Went Wrong – Poor Finishing et al: Butterfly Effect

The two deep midfielders Lucas and Ramires both sat a little too deep in the park. Though Ramires pushed up more than Lucas, it was not enough to emphasize the attacking potential. As an obvious outcome, the creative midfielder, Ganso lacked support. With an unimpressive record of 154 successful passes and 32 missed, he failed to live up to Brazil’s expectations. As Ganso was barely effective, it was up to Lucas and Ramires to feed the ball forward. As they were sitting deep, playing long balls was the key although not much effective, since the average height of their forward trio was less than 5’10”. Pato had a great first touch, but his second touch spoiled it. His poor conversion of goals to shot ratio let him down, though he managed to score 2 goals. Being a lone target man fed with the long passes, he was not that effective as he ended with making 62 successful passes only. Neymar came in with much expectation after his fantastic season with Santos, decorated with 42 goals. Though he managed to complete 27 dribbles (second highest at the tournament after Lionel Messi) and drew 13 fouls around the box, overall it was a big disappointment. Once again poor accuracy (5 on target out of 13 shots) by him and failure to provide successful crosses from the wing (13 unsuccessful crosses and only 1 successful) kept the left flank barren. Along with these, Andre Santos primarily concentrated on distributing balls (a whopping statistics of 276 passes by a left wing back) rather than using the free spaces created by Neymar on the left, and ended up with only 1 successful cross per match on average. As such, Brazil appeared pretty ordinary before the

opponent goal area. Menezesneeded to boost up their shooting skills as they kept only 46.77% shots on target and alarmingly only 6 shots out of their 22, during the quarter final against Paraguay. The failure to convert chances put massive pressure during the horror penalty shootout show where they managed to miss all of their 4 penalties.

Potential for Future

Brazil might need a few tactical switches to revamp their glory. Perhaps a 4-1-2-3 formation would help improving Ganso’s performance where Ramires should be pushed into a more attacking role. Deploying a dedicated target man might be a key as none of Neymar, Pato or Robinho is a natural target men. It is really hard to attain success with a striker-less formation for National side, but to find a replacement of Ronaldo is even harder. A European exposure for both Neymar and Ganso could do the trick.

Chile: Sensational, but no Cookie

Claudio Borghi had prepared his team from where Marcelo Bielsa had left off. The pool of talent he inherited, supposedly the golden generation of the La Roja, helped in Borghi’s tactical choices.


Bielsa’s Chile was quite brilliant throughout the World Cup qualifier matches, and was a tactical sensation at the South Africa World Cup. He mostly stuck to a super attacking 3-3-1-3 formation where he put one defensive minded midfielder to support the 3 man defensive and one ‘number 10′ behind 3 forwards. Two of his three forwards played far wide to stretch the defensive and also gave freedom to the wide

midfielders to play narrowly. This eventually gave the midfield a diamond shape. Borghi – another Argentinian who managed Colo Colo previously, didn’t tinker much with the formation after taking charge. He relied on the three men defensive line and modified the system to a more midfield heavy 3-5-2. The wide midfielders were given the responsibility to stretch the opponent’s wingbacks while one forward would drop down to strengthen the midfield. Borghi used his two wide midfielders, Jean Beausejour and Mauricio Isla in more wide roles and former Cesena man Luis Jiminez – as the attacking midfielder. Isla provided enough width to make the midfield spacious

which was exploited by the tricky Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez, though a front man, eventually dropped back into the midfield and always provided a numerical edge to his team in the midfield battle. This is an advantage in Borghi’s tactics that he didn’t restrict his team within a single formation. His 3-5-2 often switched to 3-2-3-2

or 3-3-3-1 while defending and 3-1-4-2 or 3-2-4-1(3-6-1) while attacking.

Tactical Analysis: Bielsa vs Borghi

One behavioural difference between the two systems was, Bielsa believing more on direct pressing game with electric pace while Borghi’s team preferred gradual build-up,

more possession and allowed the midfielders to come forward from the deep. The pace of the game was relatively slower. As Borghi tended more towards possession game, he used a double pivot as Artuto Vidal and Gary Medel. Dropping down Sanchez helped them to put an extra man in midfield and hold on to the possession. This transfer market sensation, though not in his best form, was tricky enough to complete 11 dribbles and extracting 20 fouls. Commensurate with his phenomenal success at Udinese as a more central threat from being a winger, Borghi also changed his position in the

national team, from being a wide player during Bielsa days.

Butterfly Effect: Vidal Underutilized?

After an awesome season with the German club, Vidal was pretty much used to play with the double pivot system with a four man defensive line. Though his team-mate, Alexis Sanchez hogged the limelight, Vidal silently lay claim to be one of the most complete midfielders of the past season. During the last season, he had the second best defensive record in Bundesliga (with 4.7 tackles per game and 2.8 interceptions per game). This skilful midfielder also exhibits effective dribbling skills and a vision for long passes. His attacking prowess makes him a complete footballer as he ended the season with 11 assists, second best in the Bundesliga and 1.9 key passes per game. He also rattled up 10 goals. While playing for Chile as a protection of a 3 man defensive, though, he was not given the license to attack and his talents were heavily under-utilized in Borghi’s formation. While he maintained an excellent average of 57.2 passes per game last season, in a more defensive role he only had 45.67 passes per game statistics in the Copa America. Other than this, though the defensive trio of Gonjalo Jara, Waldo Ponce and Pablo Contreras were pretty good in the open play, the tendency to commit a foul around the box proved costly ultimately.

Suicidal Substitution: Borghi, The Criminal

Opponents often exploited the three man defensive play by shooting long balls and turning it into a 3vs3 battle. Committing fouls seemed the only way to gain time for the out-of-position midfielders to fall back. The shock

came from Venezuela as they capitalised on the dead-ball situations perfectly. The decision of replacing Carmona for Valdivia instead of Medel proved to be fatal against Venezuela. As Medel was already on a yellow card and being the single defensive screen before a 3 man defensive, his misdemeanour eventually cost him a marching order.


With this golden generation, Chile will definitely be among the favourites for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Playing Vidal as a free player with license to attack would provide a new dimension to their attack.

Colombia: Group Leaders Derailed

Colombia did not arrive with much of an expectation, but they were the first team to qualify from the group stage after claiming the top spot above the favourites Argentina, but their limp performance against Peru in the quarter finals put forth a lot of questions.


Manager Hernan Dario Gomez used a very popular 4-1-4-1 formation spear-headed by Porto’s talismanic striker Radamel Falcao. After a slow start against Costa Rica, Colombia was excellent against Argentina and Bolivia. Gomez had a very dependable back line led by experienced Milan man Mario Yepes. At the age of 35, he had an excellent tournament and was instrumental for the three consecutive clean sheets in the group matches. It was not that easy for a player like Cristián Zapata on the bench, but the Yepes-Luis Perea pair appeared to be pretty formidable. They did not concede a single goal in the group league matches. Also, the two wing-backs, Juan Zúñiga and Pablo

Armero helped relentlessly in attacking. Gomez employed Gustavo Bolívar as the dedicated defensive minded midfielder.He used a rather flat four man midfield formation against Costa Rica – pressing the young U-23 opposition. This style left gaps between them and Gustavo Bolívar, which could have been exploited extensively by any good attacking side. In order to tackle this issue, from the next match onwards, Gomez tucked his two central midfielders, Fredy Guarín and Abel Aguilar a little deep, to establish the link between defense and attack.

Tactical Analysis: Carlos Sanchez at the heart

Though Gomez started with Bolívar against Costa Rica, despite showcasing a decent performance, he was replaced by Carlos Sanchez for the Argentina game. This strategy was immensely successful as Sanchez was

excellent throughout the crunch game and the rest of the tournament. Guarín was Colombia’s key player in the midfield and essentially the driving force behind their attacks. The Porto man scored 5 goals from 8 games in the UEFA Europa Cup and was keen to score for his national side too. He mostly attempted long rangers with high success rate to keep the opposition goalkeeper busy. Alongside him, Aguilar was also decent in his distribution. The midfielder duo shared an impressive 71.5 average passes per game in aggregate. Yet Sanchez was the most vital man for them in the midfield. He was superb against the undisputed best player of the world, Lionel Messi, and only committed 1 foul on him using all his experiences of French Ligue1. Throughout the tournament he made 16 successful tackles (5.33 per game) which quite reflected his character.

Keeping the Wingers High

Colombia’s main threat came from their flanks, where Dayro Moreno and Adrián Ramos were very active. By constantly running, shooting at the goal, and swapping flanks – they created havoc in the opposition defense. Gomez instructed them to stay up in the field and their strong appearance kept the opposition wingbacks quiet. Against Argentina, Gomez countered Pablo Zabaleta’s running on the right flank by keeping Ramos high up the pitch and forced Argentina to switch play to the left where Zanetti was playing, who is not very comfortable with his wrong foot. Since the wide forwards were not coming down, Aguilar and Guarin were instructed to tuck in centrally while defending to support Sanchez. Falcao’s duty was to move back a little to fill up the void left by their two central midfielders. Essentially Colombia converted to a defensive minded 4-3-3 while defending, and this two-layered defending worked out extremely well to stop the brilliance of Messi.

Seeking Creativity and Keeping Ills

However, in the quarterfinals they lost the game, despite being a better team than Peru. Though they had created more chances than Peru, tactically they were subjugated. In this game, both their central midfielders were man-marked, which made them ineffective in the context of their natural game. Aguilar was never that tricky to break through the marking. Peru allowed Sanchez enough time, but his lack of attacking vision let Gomez down. It’s only when Guarin who, when tried to dribble past his marker, did Colombia look threatening. As a result, the constant pressing was absent from Colombia’s game. With limited creativity in the midfield and in the reserve bench, Gomez failed to extract the best from his team. Incidentally, a penalty miss by Falcao, one of Europe’s finest strikers of the last season, and two deciding errors by their goalkeeper, ended their journey in this edition of Copa.

Future: Central Creativity

Colombia seriously needs a playmaker behind Falcao to improve the situation. The lack of creativity at the centre-of-the-park cost them a lot. While they have a sound defense and a great finisher upfront, a certain amount of creativity in the midfield can lift their game and may find a place at the world cup finals.

Argentina: Of Tactical Blunders, Human Errors

After the World Cup 2010 embarrassment, Sergio Batista took over from Diego Maradona and a fresh start was expected. Argentina was possibly the most interesting team from a

manager’s perspective. A traditional top heavy team decorated with perhaps the world’s current best player – compromised by a weak back four and an inexperienced goalkeeper. The whole world was looking forward to seeing how Batista managed the team, but yet again a shock defeat against Uruguay and an underwhelming performance throughout, forced AFA to sack him.


The main challenge for Batista was to extract the best out of Lionel Messi. With no disrespect, he was a complete failure in the first two matches. He started the tournament with a 4-3-3 formation, keeping Messi at the heart of the forward line. Nicolás Burdisso and Gabriel Milito were the two centre backs. New talent, Marcos Rojo started in the left back position and the ageless Inter Milan figure, Javier Zanetti started on the right. Batista employed 3 defensive midfielders to protect his weak defense at the

cost of a creative midfielder in the midfield. Batista was trying to emulate the Barcelona formation around the brilliance of Messi. But eventually this tactic failed.Batista had to change the formation after two poor performances by his team. He brought Zabaleta back as right full back and switched Zanetti to the left to replace the inept Rojo. This change of tactics gave Argentina a little more of width. And then he re-jigged his formation completely for the do-or-die Costa Rica match. He moved to an attack minded 4-2-3-1 from the previously defensive minded 4-3-3. It must be said that 4-2-3-1 is not the likely name to call that shape. It was actually an extremely fluid top half, to make it 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-1-3, whichever was required.

Tactical Analysis: Messi Drops Deep, Deeper…

Batista’s 4-3-3 with three defensive minded midfielders actually put an immense task for the 3 forwards to beat a 5 man opposition defense (back four + one defensive midfield at least). For the first two games against Bolivia and Colombia respectively, his midfield trio, Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano, Inter’s Esteban Cambiasso and Valencia’s Éver Banega were instructed to sit deep in their half. Mascherano and Banega rarely made forward runs, although Cambiasso was given a little license to attack. Surprisingly among these three, Cambiasso was far less creative than Banega, who though the most creative player was restricted within his own half. As a result, Messi had to move deep into his midfield to get the ball and sometimes even deeper. Though Batista claimed to try to emulate the Barcelona model, in reality it was not happening. In Barcelona, other players play their game to support Messi to the fullest. Whenever Messi receives a ball, he dribbles

past a couple of defenders and either passes the ball to his closest player and expects a return, or switches the ball to the wide forwards like David Villa or Pedro. But for this Argentine side, he was left alone in the midfield (as there were no attacking intents from the 3 defensive midfielders) and the only mode of passing the ball was towards the flank.

Butterfly Effect – A Misplaced Carlos Tevez

Unfortunately, the inability of wing play by the full backs did not leave much option for Messi either, and Tevez not being a natural wide player, his poor off-the-ball positioning made defending easy for opposition teams. In a three man forward line with Messi playing deep, Tevez should be on the far left to stretch the defense, so that Messi can run through or send through passes for midfield runners. Instead, Tevez’s tendency to move into

the centre directly towards the defender, made the formation narrow and easy for opposition to crowd out Messi.

New Formation Worked Well

Batista’s 4-2-3-1 did work pretty well against Costa Rica. Batista brought in three Real Madrid men – Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Fernando Gago, and Atletico Madrid front man Sergei Aguero. As usual, Mascherano sat deep and was given a dedicated game breaker role. Gago played further up and his distribution skills meant that Messi need not always drop deep back for the ball. Di Maria started from a deeper position on left and Aguero started as wide left. The tactical switch was to get rid of the striker-less formation to a formation with an out-an-out striker played by Higuain. Di Maria’s runs helped as he exploited the space left by Aguero who cut inside. And Lionel Messi was playing in the hole as the roaming enganche. His dribbling and passing was suddenly most effective and he had 32 successful dribbles, 3 assists and numerous key passes. This formation was mostly left-centric allowing Zabaleta to run forward from the right, with frequent helps from Messi and Higuain.

What Went Wrong: Batista Was Beaten by Tabarez

Batista started with the same system against Uruguay. The much effective fluid system forced Óscar Tabárez to play rash football and Uruguay ended the day committing 28 fouls. Even after the early sending off of Diego Perez, Batista failed to take advantage of the extra man. Mostly missed chances from Argentine forwards and a goalkeeping clinic by Muslera, were enough to put Argentina out. Batista made another major mistake by substituting

both Di Maria and Aguero with Tevez and Pastore. As a result, Tevez, Pastore and Messi were all trying to play from the middle, with no width left on the far left. One couldn’t possibly expect 120 minutes of overlapping service from the 36 year old Zanetti, that too on the left side.

Future: Messi Is Not Maradona Yet

With the best player of the world leading their attacks, Argentina will always be a great force, however, it’s time they employ a tactically sound manager who can motivate the team in the key clashes. Leo Messi was good with his new role of playmaker but not quite in his Barcelona form, and a zero goal tally says it all. However, excessive dependency on Messi might lead them nowhere.

Venezuela: Tactically Vehement

Venezuela confounded expectations by reaching the semi-final, beating one of the tournament favourites, Chile and subsequently losing out to Paraguay in the tie-breaker and Peru in the 3rd/4th deciding match.


César Farías played his team with a 4-4-2 formation which was often recognizable as 4-2-2-2 form with 2 defensive midfielders sitting deep and 2 wide midfielders playing up. Farías played four-man defense line led by Oswaldo Vizcarrondo. He had an impressive tournament, committing only 4 fouls throughout, and made 9 absolutely vital tackles at the deep defense. Along with this, he proved to be an aerial threat in the opponent’s box in the dead ball situations. Left Back Gabriel Cichero also put a notable performance and for a defender, his distribution

skills were impressive. César had two defensive midfielders, Tomas Rincon and Franklin Lucena, to protect his back four. Both made numerous interceptions and tackles and broke up opposition attacks.Venezuela faced significant issues in breaking the defense as they were always a man short in attack. Juan Arango tried hard to complement this with his long distance shooting – a tally of 16 long shots and 2 goals though isn’t very productive. Other than these, his free kicks were a source of danger, especially against Chile. César kept rotating his front duo, and his creative forward, Giancarlo Maldonado was effective as a traditional number 9.

Tactical Analysis: Don’t Chase the Game

César initially instructed his two central midfielders to chase the game by constant off-

the-ball pressing and closing down opponent midfielders. This didn’t appear to be a safe policy as they were leaving huge spaces behind them in front of the back four. So as the tournament progressed, they were asked to sit deep and wait for the attackers, providing more steel in the defense. This tactic proved successful as heavyweight teams like Brazil and Chile were kept quiet for a significant amount of time.

What Went Wrong: Missing a Classic #10

Venezuela always lacked a creative ‘number 10’ in the hole. César, with his limited resources, tried to switch the game to the right. In the semi-final against Paraguay, he missed his pivots – Rincon, for suspension and Maldonado, for slight injury. Later, deep in the second half, he employed Maldonado and asked him to play from right to make diagonal runs to the centre. His presence brought about a significant change in the momentum of the game, and they looked a far better team during the extra time. Having two defensive midfielders seated deep, reduced the attacking threat. As both of their midfielders were playing wide, there was no creativity from the central position to seek out Maldonado’s runs.


There is hope for La Vinotintos. Their counter attacking football has been praised by many, and although playing with only 10 men, they enjoyed better possession in the semi finals. Had they pursued consistently, they could have ended up playing at the Copa America finals for the first time.

Peru: Counter Attacking At Its Best

Peru was the biggest surprise package of Copa America 2011 as they played way better than usual and secured the third spot. Sergio Markarian took the flag from Jose Del Solar, under whom Peru had in the past, gone through one of their most disastrous pre-world cup campaign when they finished last. Markarian had stated his aim was to lead Peru to the 2014 World Cup after six consecutive failed campaigns. He himself has a World Cup experience, having led the Paraguay national team to the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan-Korea. The performance of the Peruvians in this Copa America definitely shows that this is a team we should keep an eye on; one can expect them to qualify in the tough South American qualifying round.


Starting as underdogs, Markarian mostly concentrated on a defense oriented formation for which he employed 3 midfielders with major defensive duties in front of 4 men back line. His 4-3-3 starting formation eventually turned to a 4-3-2-1 pyramid. Not a traditional pyramid; rather a skewed one as Markarian had a left balanced formation where the single striker was mostly paired with the left wide midfielder. The naturally aggressive Vargas shone in that role.

Tactical Analysis: Defense First, Defense Second, Attack Third

The Peruvian defense was led by Braga’s central defender Alberto Junior Rodríguez. Even after suffering an injury stricken season, he contributed a lot to Braga’s second spot in the Portuguese League and the UEFA Europa League respectively. The 27 year old centre back committed only 4 fouls in the tournament. With numerous interceptions, he managed to make up for the mistakes by inexperienced fellow defenders, Christian Ramos and Walter Vílchez. The 3 defensive midfielders, whom Markarian employed, were pretty comfortable playing long balls to break through quick counter attacks. He relied mostly on Adan Balbín and Rinaldo Cruzado for this, and a little aggressive license offered to Luis Advincula. Balbín, a natural defender, was given the duty of playing the holding role and his success in that role was instrumental in Peru’s rise.

Peru’s primary threat was their three attacking players. William Chiroque and Juan Vargas were given the license of an all-out-attack, and their presence high up the pitch pinned the opposition fullbacks. Chiroque, an experienced player from their domestic league, provided much fluidity to

their counter attacking system with his fast-paced runs and dribbling skills. This 31 year old finished with 17 successful dribbles and most of them were inside the opponent’s half. On the other side, Markarian fitted Fiorentina star Juan Vargas. Last season he was one of the few bright spots for them and he topped the assist chart for the club. His wing-play and link up play with Paolo Guerrero was responsible for the best attacking plays of Peru.

The Guerrero Effect

Paolo Guerrero, the Hamburg striker, was the main spearhead of Markarian’s counter attacking tactics. His admirable physical presence and holding capability provided enough time for Vargas and Chiroque to time their runs and stretch the defense for him. His dribbling ability forced the opposition to man mark him. Thus his movements – down the centre or to the left – always created a hole in the defense – which was suitably exploited by Vargas, who adroitly changed his position. Playing as the lone forward, Guerrero completed 16 successful dribbles and drew 22 fouls on him.

Both Vargas and Guerrero kept shooting from long range and in a combination averaged more than 6 attempts on goal per game with around 50% accuracy. Guerrero marked the performance by being the tournament’s top scorer with 5 goals and the sole hat-trick.


Peru played better than many had expected, and their counter attacking tactics bore fruit. The attack could be deadly, though with a couple of attacking fullbacks. They could also do with a substitute for Guerrero who can fill in ably for him.

Paraguay: Ugly yet Admirable

Since the time of José Luis Chilavert, Paraguay has been a tough nut to crack, and the latest Copa loudly proclaimed the same when they ‘crawled forward’ to the grand finale against Uruguay. That Paraguay played the final after not having won a single game in open play said a lot about their spirit and tactical setup.


Manager Gerardo Martino who guided Paraguay to their first ever World Cup quarter final, achieved success yet again when he took his team to the Copa final. His ‘safety first’ approach may not look great but was the most effective. Paraguay played mostly with a defensive minded 4-4-2 formation. Like most of the Latin American teams, this is a hybrid formation and can be quickly converted to

4-3-3. Off-the-ball, one forward would track back to make it an effective 4-5-1.They had Justo Villar, who was the outstanding player of both the quarters and semis, a back four of Darío Verón on the right, Paulo da Silva and Antolín Alcaraz in the centre and Aureliano Torres on the left. Enrique Vera played in the defensive midfield zone with Marcos Riveros to his left, slightly ahead of him, and Néstor Ortigoza to his right. Marcelo Estigarribia and Nelson Valdez played wide of the main striker Lucas Barrios. Estigarribia was employed in a deeper midfield position on the left. Valdez played in a more forward role making the system turn into a 4-4-2, when Paraguay had the ball. Martino had changed the front three frequently, by switching the position of Barrios and sometimes using former Manchester City man, Roque Santa Cruz as the withdrawn forward.

Tactical Analysis: Narrow Defending

Martino let his team play with a philosophy of narrow defending. His two full backs were playing narrower to have the crowd out the central spaces in front of the goal. They allowed much space in the flanks to draw opponents in the open area, and Paraguay’s wide midfielders did not miss a single opportunity to exploit that open space. Dani Alves was made to crawl in the first match with Brazil, by the tricky Estigarribia.

Though Martino formed his team with prior defensive decorations, Paraguay was never too eager to press. They allowed opponents to play in the midfield and on the flanks.

Often Vera came down to make the back 5, and kept deep-lying Nestor Ortigoza at the middle

of the pitch. Ortigoza had a superb tournament as the playmaker. His ability to dictate the pace of the game had been used magnificently in the narrow formation. He finished with 202 successful passes and 17 successful through passes. Due to his excellent vision and passing ability, he drew at least one opposition midfielder at the middle to close him down, eventually creating free space for others.

What Went Wrong? Direct Defending Cost Them Dear

Though Martino employed a defense-minded strategy, the execution was not at its best. Jamming the goalmouth is a good option when you have a two layered defense with minimal gap. Practically, when Vera came down deep in the defense, Ortigoza and Riveros were not pressing the game. As a result, Brazil and Uruguay both had sufficient space between their midfield and defensive lines, which was heavily exploited to penetrate the defense. Brazil was dreadful in front of the goal and an almost superhuman performance from the goalkeeper, Villar kept Paraguay moving ahead in the race. However, a razor-sharp finishing from Luis Suarez and Diego Forlán showed us the defensive flaws in the Paraguayan model. Beside this, Paraguay tried to employ a heavy traffic in front of the goal which actually made no room for a second cover behind a defender. This was frequently exploited by Suarez in the final, as he dribbled past the defender to get into the open.

Future: Pragmatic in True Sense

It was a sorry state of affairs, but with limited resources, injuries and red cards, this was the most pragmatic form of game Paraguayans could produce. The passion of their fans was also instrumental in keeping their spirit up (Larissa

Riquelme had already declared her desire to “present herself” if the team won). Strange as it is, they still needed to work on their defense. Playing a defensive strategy yet feeling uncomfortable while defending is a poor banner for their model. It appeared that Villar was protecting the defense instead of the other way round.

Uruguay: Tactical Superiority

Following their strong World Cup run, Uruguay led by the evergreen Forlan and guided by ‘The Professor’ Óscar Tabárez, snatched the crown of Copa America 2011 proving that their World Cup success had not been a fluke. After a dull low scoring affair, Uruguay proved themselves stronger than other teams. Success doesn’t usually come by easily and smoothly and it is to Tabarez’ credit that after a poor start and many a hard time, Uruguay managed to place their nation on the path to success.


Uruguay didn’t play with a steady formation throughout. Tabárez kept altering the formation depending on match situations and the opponent’s shape. Mostly he started with a variant of the classic 4-4-2 but didn’t hesitate to switch to 3-3-2-2 with 3 centre backs. Not just the shape, Tabárez kept changing personnel too, depending on the opposition. Other than Diego Godin, who was ill, and their reserve goalkeepers, Tabárez utilised all other squad members. When he played with the 4 man defense, he employed skipper Diego Lugano and Sebastián Coates as the stoppers and Alvero Pereira and Maxi Pereira as the overlapping side-backs. When he moved to the 3 man defense line, he employed 3 centre-backs and achieved the numerical advantage

deep in the defense. He fully utilised the versatility of former Barcelona defender Martin Cáceres, who can play at different positions as a defender. To tackle the strong Argentine attacking threat, he employed Arevalo Rios and Diego Perez as two defensive pivots to protect their back line. His decision of going with 3 forwards was heavily dependent on the availability of in-form Napoli man Edinson Cavani; else he kept faith on his superstar forward pair of Suarez and Forlan as the front duo, where Forlan operated from a little deeper.

Tactical Analysis: Direct Football

Uruguay did not play fancy football like passing in the midfield or building up from the deep. They rather believed in directly placing the ball in the opposition’s half, and then press hard. Suarez was particularly instrumental behind this tactic. His ability to hold the ball and draw attention from the defenders made free space for

Forlan to exploit. He suffered 27 fouls and completed 12 successful dribbles. Diego Forlan on the other hand, was playing behind him more as a playmaker. His excellent vision was instrumental behind a lot of attacks and his pin-point passing also set up many counter attacks. Their defenders sat deep and were drawing opposition midfielders up in the pitch to make free spaces for quick counters and put their forwards in a dangerous 3vs3 situation. The tactic of pressing high up the field worked excellently in the final when they unsettled Paraguay’s key play-maker Nestor Ortigoza, and didn’t allow him to dictate the pace of the game.

Tackling the Perez Red Card

Uruguay mostly consisted of tireless players like Diego Perez, Arevalo Rios or Maxi Pereira. Perez was the heart of these three. After he got sent off during the Argentina match, Tabárez tackled

the numerical disadvantage by installing a narrow diamond shape in the midfield with Forlan at the tip and Rios at the bottom, allowing spaces at the flank. The full-backs didn’t press at the flanks, rather waited deep, allowing their midfielders to fall back and helped in defending.

What Went Wrong: Thin Defending

Uruguay suffered a lot. Inspired by Messi, Argentina exposed a lot of flaws in the system of the Uruguay team. Their high pressing game up on the field left a thin defense on the other side. Quick switch of game play easily exploits the flaw. Apart from that, closing down in the midfield left a huge gap between the midfield and defense lines. A slightly higher line of defense could possibly be a solution, a strategy that Tabárez was not prepared to risk, given that his defenders weren’t pacy enough.

Future: Brighter

The way Uruguay has been playing under Óscar Tabárez is inspirational. After reaching the semi-final in 2007 Copa America and 2010 World Cup, they are now the emperors of South American football. With the current statistics and form, they may achieve another World Cup glory. The primary concern for Tabárez, however, would be to find an appropriate replacement for Diego Forlan, who will be 35 in 2014. Diego Perez, who had an excellent Copa, will be 34 and the centre-back Lugano will be 33. Tabárez has a versatile pool of talent and the qualifiers will be the stage for experiments.

Is this a trend?

The chaotic imbalance of the recently held Copa raises some issues worthy of discussion. This tournament was not for those who came to watch free flowing football. It was a tournament of tactical formations, of pragmatic formations and approach over Jogo Bonito. Although in the last two editions of the tournament, we witnessed a goal flurry (an average of more than 3 goals per game),

Copa 2011 had barely 2 goals per match (2.07 goals per game).Most of the managers used double pivot system to protect their defense and installed a ‘safety first’ attitude. Other than this, one more topic that begs asking is – what is the preferred model for a national team: possession football or direct approach. In recent times, Barcelona has established their superiority by their possession oriented football game. How effective is that for a national side? The answer is doubtful. The following graph shows the possession %age of the teams in the Copa 2011, where the 4 teams who were eliminated in the Quarter Final, top the list.

Even in the final, Uruguay’s more direct approach with 37% ball possession, overpowered possession game of Paraguay. To draw another comparison with Barcelona, it is not how long you keep the ball but what you do with that. The smarter teams can do without less possession but discipline, organization and spirit must remain top notch.

The Copa America 2011 may have been a dull event in the perspective of goals scored and dearth of free flowing attacking football, it was a tactical lesson on how to combat effectively with limited resources.


Srinwantu Dey is a football student and loves to analyse the game tactically. He can be reached @srinwantudey.