A little over two weeks ago, on my first morning in Santiago, Chile, I went for a walk and was enjoying what I thought to be the crisp, clean winter air—until I picked up a newspaper.
On the front page I was informed that an environmental pre-emergency had been declared. Restrictions on car usage were imposed as the city's pollution problem had flared up again. Santiago is stuck in a valley between mountains. With no wind or rain, the pollution fails to disperse and settles as smog.
Since my first-day shock, the situation has worsened. There has still been no rain—this is on course to be the driest June since 1968. By Sunday, many were feeling the effects. Hospitals reported an increase of people with breathing difficulties. The following day, a full emergency was declared—the first since 1999—with the local authorities warning people against exercising outdoors.
There is no respite, though, for those taking part in the Copa America, which now moves into the knock-out games. There is something of a phony war about a group stage in which eight of 12 teams make it through. But now, in the quarter-finals, it is a case of win or bust. So, as things get serious in the smog, let's have a purely subjective look back at 10 highlights of the tournament so far.
1. The setting of the stadiums
Those mountains produce a stunning backdrop to many of the grounds being used in this tournament. My favourite was Rancagua, because I caught an afternoon game there in time to appreciate a lovely sunset over the mountain range.
Even stadiums with no mountains in view are pretty. Vina del Mar on the coast has its stadium in a scenic park alongside a lake. Everywhere, the sky seems to be huge. Chile really is a strikingly beautiful country.
2. That pass by Neymar
The finest moment of football so far came in stoppage time of a match when Peru were on the verge of holding Brazil to a surprise 1-1 draw.
Neymar was in possession near the left edge of the penalty area. He could have gone for a solo dribble or tried a shot—a few minutes earlier he had hit the bar from a similar position. Instead, with breathtaking vision and imagination, he played a pass that no one had expected, a diagonal ball that took out the entire Peruvian defence and gave Douglas Costa the chance to win the match.
Like many strokes of genius, the unexpected was produced with such calm and made to look so simple. To come up with something like that at such a stage in the game is the mark of a truly gifted footballer.
3. The marking job of Colombia's Carlos Sanchez on Neymar
In Neymar's next match, though, he grabbed the headlines for all the wrong reasons, getting himself sent off and suspended for the rest of the tournament. The chief architect of this was Carlos Sanchez. Four years ago I saw him mark Lionel Messi out of the game in the Copa America in Argentina. Now, he was even better.
It was a wonderful display of defensive midfield play. Sanchez took all the responsibility for stopping Brazil at its source. He protected the space, won the tackles and frustrated Neymar to the extent that the Brazilian captain, on the losing side for the first time in a competitive match, turned into a petulant brat.
4. The atmosphere in the stadium for that game
As the continent has become richer, more fans are able to travel to the Copa, and Colombia is the best example.
I remember games involving Colombia in the 1999 tournament in Paraguay when there were more police than spectators in the ground. There is no chance of that now.
Four years ago in Argentina the Colombian traveling army were present. There were plenty of them in Brazil for the World Cup, and they have come back for this Copa. In this match it seemed that they made up 80 per cent of the stadium, and they joyously sang their side to its first victory over Brazil since 1991.
5. Chile's second-half performance against Mexico
In full flight there are few finer sights in the game than the current Chilean national team. They go at pace, and they throw so many players forward that the man on the ball has plenty of options and the football really flows.
Probably their best performance so far came in the second half of the only game they failed to win. The opening-night 2-0 win over Ecuador was a nervy performance, and the goals came at moments when the opposition were on top. The 5-0 rout of Bolivia was a glorified friendly, with both teams already assured of a quarter-final place. In the middle came the 3-3 draw against Mexico. This was not a game that Chile's defence can look back on with any satisfaction. But going forward, especially after the interval, they were irresistible—and would surely have won had two goals not been ruled out for debatable offsides.
My favourite was the one that should have been the first goal of the tournament scored by Alexis Sanchez. It was coach Jorge Sampaoli's side at their best; a quick, three-man combination and a ball out to the right flank for Mauricio Isla to put in a low cross behind the Mexican defence, artfully steered home by Sanchez. The fact that such an outstanding goal did not stand is nothing short of a footballing outrage.
6. Jorge Sampaoli on the Arturo Vidal case
Twenty four hours after that match, Chile's campaign was plunged into scandal. Arturo Vidal, still the tournament's top scorer, crashed his Ferrari after having a few drinks. He faces a criminal investigation.
Should he have been kicked out of the squad? Sampaoli was adamant that he should not. In the next day's press conference, he argued that what Vidal had done was not sufficiently serious to warrant his expulsion.
Sampaoli then looked a little uncomfortable when he was reminded that in 2013 he had dropped midfielder Charles Aranguiz from the squad for oversleeping. As ever in football, moral relativity reigns.
7. The number of Peruvian restaurants
Relations have not always been peaceful between Pacific neighbours Chile and Peru, who fought a war from 1879 to 1884.
It is heartwarming, then, to see that Chileans recognise the excellence of their rivals' cuisine. There are plenty of Peruvian restaurants to be found. Inexplicable, though, is the Chilean tendency to eat outside, even in fierce mid-winter cold, when they are wearing so many layers of clothing that it is hard to manipulate the knife and fork.
8. The movement of Sergio Aguero
The in-form striker of the tournament so far has been Aguero, who scored in both Argentina's first two games. His first goal against Paraguay may have looked like a gift—Aguero latched on to a bad back pass from opposing left-back Miguel Samudio. But when Samudio robbed Messi and glanced toward his keeper, Aguero would not have been in his field of vision.
The diagonal movement of the little Manchester City striker was so fast and well-timed that he turned a routine back pass into a giveaway.
Three days later, he produced a similar burst of acceleration to arrive in front of the near post in time to meet Pablo Zabaleta's cross with a bullet header that won the match against Uruguay. He injured a shoulder in the process. Argentina will hope that he is ready and able to do something similar on Friday against a Colombia defence that so far have only conceded a single goal.
9. The great Paraguayan comeback
In that opening game against Argentina, Paraguay looked dead and buried at half-time. They came into the tournament with little preparation and had looked poor in their only warm-up game. They looked even worse in the first half against Argentina, barely stringing together three passes. At 2-0 down they were facing an almighty hammering. Attempts to chase the game would leave them open on the counter-attack to Argentina's awe-inspiring collection of individual talent.
But they rode their luck a little; Argentina were wasteful, and coach Gerardo Martino made some baffling substitutions. And fortune favoured the bold. Toward the end, Paraguay had Argentina on the ropes and managed to come up with an unlikely equaliser in the last minute of the game.
10. The tired vuvuzela salesman
Those vuvuzela trumpets have been a Copa success story. On my way to the national stadium for the opening game I saw a seller try to demonstrate his product with a blast. But he had clearly been blowing away for some time, and exhausted by the effort, he collapsed in a heap. It is a metaphor for the current situation in the competition—who has the puff left to get through the knock-out matches?
Tim Vickery is covering the Copa America on location for Bleacher Report in Chile.