Expectations at the Maracana could not have been much more one-sided. Here were Peru, in their first Copa America final since 1975 and the golden days of Hector Chumpitaz, Teofilo Cubillas and Hugo Sotil, up against a star-scattered Brazil team playing on home soil and in front of a febrile crowd at their national stadium. For the Selecao, who last won the tournament in 2007, the wait for a major trophy has been a source of enormous national angst. Little wonder, then, that strongman president Jair Bolsonaro was in the stands, ready to bask in the reflected glory while only adding to the pressure on Brazil’s footballers – many of whom have proven highly susceptible to his brand of right-wing chauvinism – to deliver.
If this Peru side have proven anything, however, it is that they will fight right to the end. Few sides outrun, outmuscle and outpress Chile, but that’s exactly how La Blanquirroja caused an emphatic upset in their semi-final in Porto Alegre. Wearing their blood-red sashes like bandoliers, the Peruvians trotted out onto the pitch like Andean cowboys and had the air of outlaws about them; moody desperados hoping to defy the laws of South American football. This was a game they would shape in their image: physical, sharp-elbowed and uncompromising, but also full of youthful energy, one-for-all-and-all-for-one spirit and insurgent bravura.
The underdogs started the game as they meant to go on, spiky in the challenge, generous with their shoulder barges and pressing so high up the pitch they were in danger of a collective nosebleed. After Gabriel Jesus, a national hero in the making after his goal against Argentina in the semis, had garroted three Peruvian defenders with a razor-sharp turn to tee up Gremio forward Everton for Brazil’s early opener, it was Peru who slowly wrestled the game into submission.
Just before half-time, it looked as if they might have their reward. A handball from Thiago Silva – another product of the ridiculous new “natural silhouette” rule – gave all-time Peruvian top scorer Paolo Guerrero a chance to equalise from the spot. One needless VAR check later, and he made beating Alisson look remarkably easy.
It was then that Brazil summoned up the one great show of magic in the match. After Roberto Firmino had won the ball back high up the pitch, beating Peru at their own pressing game, Barcelona midfielder Arthur bombed forward and picked out Jesus between the Peruvian centre-backs. He burst through the gap into a sea of open space and, with one fluid movement, stroked a shot into the back of Pedro Gallese’s net. It all happened so fast, a blur of canary yellow shirts, that Peru seemed genuinely thunderstruck and had no answer for the first time in the game.
As it turned out, that would not be Jesus’ last game-shaping contribution. Having provided a vital goal and an assist, however, his next big moment would be less beneficial to Brazil. With Peru defender Carlos Zambrano booked moments earlier for a foul on Jesus – himself booked in the first half – the Manchester City man took some rudimentary revenge by steaming into Zambrano while contesting a high ball. Given the scale of low-level rule breaking, spicy challenges and general naughtiness all through the game, it was barely enough to make most onlookers blink. Referee Roberto Tobar had a sudden pang of vigilance, however, producing a second yellow and sending off the hero of the hour.
Jesus only left the field after a series of gestures towards the referee which are likely to incur some sort of fine, demolishing a water bottle on his way off the pitch, shoving the VAR monitor like a livid pub regular attacking a fruit machine and then sitting in the tunnel in tears in what was an admirable pastiche of the average British Friday night out. For a moment, it looked like the underdogs might claw their way back into it as Miguel Trauco forced Alisson into a save at his near post and Peru seemed to be turning the screw. To his credit, Brazil coach Tite brought on Richarlison and Eder Militao straightaway and it proved to be a stroke of understated genius. While Militao strengthened Brazil’s defensive unit, Richarlison did just as much defending from the front and, if anything, Brazil looked more energetic with 10 men than they had with 11.
With Peru seemingly gifted a chance to retake the initiative, their gunfighting bravado was tempered with the unfamiliar need to reimagine themselves as favourites. In through that window of doubt swooped Everton, slaloming into the box after a chaotic solo run which ended when he was taken out by a comically clumsy shoulder charge from Zambrano. After another unnecessary consultation with VAR, the decision stood. Richarlison whipped in a shot from 12 yards and tore off his shirt in celebration.
So Brazil won their first international trophy in 12 years, one which will be held up as a symbol of Brazilian unity and togetherness by an extremely divisive government. Bolsonaro will certainly see it as a propaganda victory having spent the game tweeting his machismo-heavy goal celebrations, though he received a mixed reception at the medal ceremony afterwards with loud boos ringing out among the cheers from the stands, lots of awkward shuffling from players and – despite seeming enthusiasm from much of the squad as he leapt in among them to pose with the trophy afterwards – a conspicuous snub from PSG defender Marquinhos which had serious cringe factor.
Marquinhos passando reto pelo Bolsonaro.wmv pic.twitter.com/JOQlmoadPG
— Danilo Sanches (@danilo_sanches) July 7, 2019
Politics aside, Brazilians may have some way to go to fall fully in love with the Selecao again. Many fans accuse them of playing too many money-spinning friendlies overseas – see the decade-long ‘Brazil Global Tour’ for reference – as well as a feeling that they still need to make up for their humiliation at the 2014 World Cup with another triumph on the global stage. For now, the Copa America will at least give Brazilians the comfort of knowing that the Selecao are once more the best team on the continent. As for Peru, they fought bravely but, like all the best cowboys, they settled for going out in a blaze of glory over a happy ending.