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Little to celebrate as Copa America ends

© Reuters Limited 2001

BOGOTA, July 30 (Reuters) - Colombians danced with joy, politicians and soccer officials patted each other on the back and the rest of the football world asked why they bothered as the Copa America ended on Sunday.

Colombia's first Copa America title, achieved with a 1-0 win over a Mexican team who had two players and their coach shown the red card, sent thousands of people streaming on to the streets of the country's main cities on Sunday night.

But for other admirers of South American football there was little to smile about following a tournament which many suspect was held purely for the benefit of sponsors and Colombian politicians.

The decision to cram the competition into the middle of the South American World Cup qualifying contest - in which the continent's ten nations play each other twice over an 18-month period - led most countries to field experimental teams.

The competition was therefore greatly devalued even before the farcical build-up in which the South American Football Confederation (CSF) was unable to decide whether Colombia was safe enough to hold the tournament.

The CSF twice ratified Colombia as hosts, then decided to move the tournament elsewhere, then reinstated Colombia but postponed the contest until next year, before finally deciding to go ahead in Colombia as planned at just six days' notice.

Pulled Out
Argentina, who had disbanded their team, pulled out altogether. As Argentina Football Association president Julio Grondona said pointedly: "We don't tend to form a team in three days."

Canada, due to take part as guests, also withdrew. Costa Rica and Honduras agreed to take part but one official admitted that Tahiti could have played if they had asked.

Despite all these problems, officials declared the Copa a roaring success, simply on the basis that it passed off without any major security scares.

"I want to congratulate Colombia for its efforts .. and also President (Andres) Pastrana for his courage in organising the tournament which, despite some difficulties, was successful," said FIFA president Sepp Blatter in Lima on Friday.

"Naturally, the decisions about whether to play or not affected the tournament but the sport was stronger than those challenges," he said. "The Copa America is a tournament that in my opinion has been very successful and has attracted many people."

Pastrana himself said: "We feel proud to have organised the best Copa America in history. This is a triumph for all Colombians and shows that when a country wants something, it can get it with faith and unity."

Diego Maradona, who watched the final at the invitation of the CSF, saw things from a different perspective.

"I've come simply to show that the Argentine players have nothing to do with the fact that the Argentine team is not here," he said.

Directors To Blame
"The directors and the politicians are to blame...Without players, there are no directors." The CSF has not discussed how to restore the prestige of the competition and is already concentrating its efforts on making the next Copa - to be held in Peru in 2003 - bigger rather than better.

CSF president Nicolas Leoz said last week that his dream was for the competition to include all the countries of the American continent.

The CSF provided further evidence of its preference for quantity over quality on Sunday when it staged several games in the Copa Mercosur - a made-for-television competition featuring 20 of the continent's biggest clubs - on the same day as its showpiece event in Bogota.

And there was a full programme of domestic football in Mexico despite the appearance of the national team in the final.

But even Colombia's celebrations could be short-lived.

The team are struggling to qualify for the World Cup and meet Peru at home in two weeks, desperately needing a win to put their campaign back on track.

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