Colombia, the beleaguered hosts of a Copa America jeopardised by a kidnapping, riven by security fears and devalued by player and team withdrawals, at last gave their long-suffering supporters some- thing to cheer, a goal from the defender Ivan Cordoba proving enough to defeat Mexico in the final to claim their first-ever international trophy at the Nemesio Camacho Stadium, Bogota, on Sunday night.
"Soccer has magic," the Colombia coach, Francisco Maturana, said, moments after his team's victory. "We were forgetting how to smile and we had no joy. Now we do."
Rarely has a tournament been decided by a more worthy scorer. Together with the imperious Mario Yepes, Cordoba had formed a central defensive partnership which has been the envy of their supposed superiors, and when he rose above the Mexican defence to head in a corner kick in the 65th minute, it sparked wild celebrations among the 46,000 home supporters which continued long into the night.
"People came here and we have given them a different image of Colombia than that portrayed before the tournament," said Maturana. "I am glad we have now given the supporters a great deal of happiness."
That the triumph had been achieved in a competition which almost never took place and which, when it finally began, was devalued by the weak nature of the opposition, will matter little to Colombians today. At the final whistle, the fans erupted in cries of "Colombia, Colombia" and "We want peace." Fireworks exploded over grandstands, where white bandanas representing peace mixed with the sunburst of red, yellow and blue, Colombia's national colours.
It was also a victory for Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, who had fought to appease the officials of other participating countries who wanted to move the Copa elsewhere or suspend it for fear of violence following the kidnapping of Hernan Campuzano, the tournament director and vice-president of the Colombian Football Federation, and bombings in Bogota, Cali and Medellin. Colombia were twice ratified as hosts, then the tournament was moved, then reinstated in Colombia but postponed until next year, before it was finally given the go-ahead in Colombia, at just six days' notice. Argentina and Canada pulled out amid the chaos.
"No country had to fight like we did," said Pastrana, who dubbed the Copa "The Peace Cup."
The decision to cram the competition into the middle of the South American World Cup qualifying contest led most countries to field experimental teams even before the off-field problems. Even so, the Copa highlighted the continuing decline of Brazil and a suggested shift in power towards the continent's traditional also-rans.
Brazil, along with Argentina and Uruguay, have won 34 of the first 39 Copa Americas, but none of them looked like winning the 40th. Argentina withdrew, while Uruguay have long since slipped off their perch as kings of the global game, and did well to reach the semi-finals with a scratch side. Brazil were astonishingly beaten twice by teams from Central America.
There were similar aspects about Brazil's opening defeat by Mexico, and their eventual elimination at the hands of Honduras. Defending in numbers, both were able to nullify Brazil's individual ability. But it was not only in defence that Brazil's conquerors caught the eye. Honduras played with just one striker, the lightning-quick Saul Martinez, who was well supported from midfield by the tricky Turcios, the dynamic Leon and Guevara, owner of one of the hardest shots in the game.
Mexico, with no real individual talent, showed some splendid collective play. Until injuries and suspensions forced them to reorganise for the final, they were, in patches, as impressive as anyone at the tournament.
Just as Central America is on the rise, so is the north of South America. Ecuador are having a wonderful run in World Cup qualification, and Colombia are a country with the potential to one day win the biggest prize in football.
The generation of Valderrama put them on the map, but Colombia have now gone further. Their team has more dynamism than in the past, and the sheer quantity of players that its domestic game is producing, added to the morale boost of their first major title, make Colombian football a force that should not be underestimated.
Bearing in mind the time constraints, the organisation was satisfactory, although there were problems in the final. Twenty seconds after kick off parachutists were still landing on the field. One crashed into advertising hoardings and was stretchered away. Also the mascot took three attempts to get the ball into the net at half-time. Colombia needed a few more, but they got there in the end.