The 2016 Copa America in the US had its first really good 90 minutes when Mexico struck two late goals to beat Uruguay 3-1. It was a thoroughly entertaining game, with Uruguay coming back from a goal down and a man down to equalise and set up a grandstand finish that could have gone either way.
It is from now, on, though, that the playing field is not so level. Mexico make the short journey to Pasadena for their second game, and then play their third in Houston, making sedate progress across the country.
Uruguay, meanwhile, are following an itinerary that looks like it has been drawn up by a four-year-old with a felt tip pen. They cross the country to face Venezuela in Philadelphia, and then go all the way back to the West Coast to take on Jamaica in Santa Clara – and if they finish second in the group (probably the height of their ambitions after losing to the Mexicans) then they have another long journey back across for a quarter-final in Boston.
Commercial considerations are surely uppermost here. Mexico can fill stadiums in those parts of the US where their games are being staged, while Uruguay fans will not add significantly to the box office. But this is undeniably a travesty of sporting justice. On virtually home ground, the CONCACAF side are clearly being favoured. Will this apply to the refereeing as well?
Some of the Colombian media raised this concern before their team’s opening game against the US – in the event the Colombians could have little complaint, especially with the penalty they were awarded which gave them a 2-0 lead. But this issue may not go away.
The Copa America, of course, is the competition of South America. In recent times, two teams from elsewhere – almost always from CONCACAF – have been invited to make up the numbers. They, and especially the Mexicans, who have come close to winning the trophy on a couple of occasions, have not always felt themselves getting a fair deal from the referees.
This time, though, the boot is on the other foot. This centenary version of the Copa is, somewhat bizarrely, taking place in the US, with 6 CONCACAF teams as well as the 10 from South America. With two confederations involved, there is increased scope for accusations of refereeing bias.
Then again, such charges have been part of the Copa from the very start. The third version of the competition was held in 1919 in Brazil. In order to play down accusations of bias, a neutral referee was brought in to take charge of three of the seven matches. He was Richard Todd of England, and his tropical adventure was the first in a series. Between then and 1957, a total of 13 English referees took charge of 50 games in the Copa America.
After Todd came David Thurner, brought in to referee the decisive, and potentially explosive match between Argentina and Uruguay in 1927. But the idea really took hold after the Second World War. Cyril Jack Barrick had refereed the 1948 FA Cup Final, when Manchester United overcame the Blackpool of Matthews and Mortensen to win 4-2. A year later Barrick found himself having a close look at plenty of great players from the other side of the Atlantic. He took charge of 11 games in the 1949 Copa.
Four years later, in Lima, only two of the 22 matches did not have an Englishman in the middle. A group of them had been officiating in Argentina, and they were drafted in for the Copa. Five were used in all, with Richard Maddison taking charge of eight games. His experiences perhaps go some way to explaining why no English referee ever stayed around for more than one version of the tournament.
Substitutions were already permitted in the Copa – but against Peru, Paraguay (the eventual champions) inadvertently made a fourth change, when only three were allowed. The surplus substitute was sent off and, amid much protest, Paraguay were stripped of the point they gained in the 2-2 draw.
Then, when Victor Brown of Bolivia was sent off in the game against Chile the Bolivians refused to carry on. Maddison abandoned the game with almost 25 minutes still to play.
Back in Lima four years later, English referees took charge of 14 of the 21 matches in the 1957 tournament – and there was also an Italian, Diego di Leo, who was given one match. But the idea died there – which may well have been unfortunate for the career of Pele.
The next tournament was held in Argentina in 1959. It proved to be the only time that Pele played in the competition. Like all Copas up to that point, it was organised on a league basis, and Brazil arrived at the last game needing to beat Argentina to be champions. For the hosts, a draw would be enough. Pele scored Brazil’s equaliser, and the score stayed at 1-1 – although the final whistle blew just as Brazil were scoring what would have been the decisive goal.
It was ruled out by a referee from Chile – and, as the law of karma would have it, it was a Chilean linesman who – wrongly it seems – ruled out a goal for Ecuador which would have beaten Brazil in their opening game of this year’s Copa.