-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — There's no year like 2021 for comparing the state of the art of world football. In the same year, month and almost at the same hour, we could compare the best of European and South American soccer. And we haven't come out of it looking good.

The differences encompass every imaginable aspect. We can start with the sensations the competition generates on each side of the Atlantic. While the Euro Championship has been a kind of traveling party across the continent, the South American Copa is a pariah spurned in Colombia, Argentina and practically in Brazil too. Over there, football remains a much needed distraction, entertainment and a passion. Here, it is the motive for ridiculous quarrels in which various academics and political analysts who have read little about the history of this sport, believe a country's ruler can use the Copa América to manipulate opinion.

In Europe, you see a pitch for professionals.

Infrastructures are naturally another, substantial difference. On the Old Continent, they play on a field similar to the smooth cloth covering a snooker table. It is not just in Wembley, but even in Hungary: the grass gives the impression that, yes, this is a pitch for professionals. The simple reality is that the ball rolls smoothly in Europe.

In Brazil, which I would still like to consider a soccer-loving country, the pitch looks more like a potato field. The ball doesn't roll but bobs up and down on a rugged, disorderly and ill-kept lawn. Certainly, the Copa América arrived here at the last minute, but one cannot understand how they are used to playing soccer on these bungled tracks.

The gaping contrasts get bigger, if it were possible, when you compare how UEFA and Conmebol (soccer governing bodies) utilize data. Originally I had wanted to quantify the differences in football in statistical terms. Impossible.

On the UEFA website I find data on ball possession, precision passing, shots, ball recoveries, assists, speed, distance cover etc. Essentially one finds the minimum you would expect in a professional tournament in the 21st century. The Conmebol website reports goals, assists and shots. Europe gives me data on any player in the match. In South America I could only find out about the first 20 in the three categories. A Conmebol report appears to be for an amateur match, compared to UEFA's.

We can talk about the players another time. Certainly we have stars like Lionel Messi and Neymar, though one is 34 years old, the other, 29. National teams like those of Bolivia and Venezuela have been mired in mediocrity for decades. Our soccer needs a regional plan that allows us to generate quality for the long term. The longstanding system of seeking out future stars among kids playing in shantytown terrains helped make Latin America a football mecca. It's no longer enough.


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