The 2015 Copa America was always expected to come to a climax with a final between Chile and either Brazil or Argentina.
In the bottom half of the draw, there was just a moment when it looked as if Paraguay had failed to read the script. They came back to force a heroic 2-2 draw with Argentina in the group phase, and then they eliminated Brazil on penalties in the quarter-finals. But they went down by a tennis score to Lionel Messi and company—and so Argentina will face the hosts in the final.
And as the top half of the draw played out its predictable course, there has been some grumbling, especially from Uruguayan and Argentinian sources. Former Uruguay striker Javier Chevanton even went so far as to declare on his Twitter account that they might as well just hand the trophy to Chile before the final.
The hosts have certainly had a relatively easy ride, as is usual in these competitions. Chile were placed in the easiest group, and providing they won it, they would avoid the other group winners (i.e. Brazil and Argentina) and play all their games at the national stadium in Santiago. All of this is a significant aid to their campaign in itself, but some think there has been more.
At half-time in the semi-final against Peru, when Chile were a goal up and already playing against 10 men, clusters of Argentinian and Uruguayan journalists gathered in the stadium to view on someone's laptop the slow-motion replays of the Chile goal.
And there it was. The image clearly showed that as Alexis Sanchez struck his cross-cum-shot, there, standing in an offside position, was Eduardo Vargas, the man who would bundle the ball over the line after it came back from the post. The assorted press from the River Plate complained and gesticulated. It was ridiculous, they said. The whole thing was a setup.
Are they right? This is a part of the world obsessed with such conspiracies, always open to the belief that the important decisions are taken by old men in smoky rooms. And there is no doubt that the Copa benefits from a strong performance by the hosts—hence the (legitimate) measures mentioned above.
But have murkier ways been found to help Chile on their way? Of course, there is that "offside" goal by Vargas against Peru. And there is also the fact that both quarter- and semi-final opponents, Uruguay and Peru, respectively, had men sent off. Rafael Fernandez, vice president of the Uruguayan FA, told the VTV channel, "This is the Copa of suspicion."
As I am not privy to any backstage meeting where such a carve-up was arranged, all we can do is examine the facts.
1. The sending-off of Uruguay's Edinson Cavani in the quarter-final
This has become one of the most notorious incidents of the Copa, and it has overflowed with stories. The photographic evidence makes it clear: Chilean defender Gonzalo Jara provoked Cavani by sticking a finger up his backside, an offence for which Jara is serving a suspension.
But it would be unfair to expect the referee to have seen this. (Indeed, one can only feel sorry for the referees in this competition with so much going on.) What the referee did see, though, was Cavani responding with a little slap in Jara's face. Not a knockout blow, true, but an incident worthy of a yellow card. And since Cavani had already received a yellow, he had to go.
2. The sending-off of Uruguay's Jorge Fucile in the quarter-final
In this case, it is difficult to justify the referee's decision. The Uruguayan left-back picked up two yellow cards—his coach, Oscar Washington Tabarez, later complained that his player had been sent off without committing a foul.
It does seem hard to explain the actions of Brazilian referee Sandro Meira Ricci. All that can be said in his defence is that sending off the Uruguayan left-back in the last few minutes was a mistake that likely had little bearing on the outcome of the game.
3. The sending-off of Peru's Carlos Zambrano in the semi-final
This is another decision that has been widely criticised, and in this case, the red card brandished by Venezuelan referee Jose Argote did have a huge bearing on the game. Peru had been the better side for the first 20 minutes, but they were forced to reorganise after the early loss of their centre-back.
Zambrano had an eventful first 20 minutes. Right at the start, he was involved in a spat with Arturo Vidal. Some suggested that both should have been sent off then—which would surely have lacked common sense. The referee was correct to give them a warning and time to cool down.
But—and not for the first time in a Peru shirt—Zambrano was not to be calmed. Over-anxious to be the strong man, he was booked for a foul on Alexis Sanchez—and then he deliberately and maliciously left in a high boot on Charles Aranguiz.
It was such a clear red card that Peru hardly bothered protesting at the time and did not do so after the game. Indeed, Zambrano, on his Instagram account, held his hand up and apologised. "I'm the first to accept that I wrecked it for my country," he said. "The criticism is understandable."
There do not seem to be any grounds to protest this decision. Some still have, though, perhaps trying to bend the facts to some pre-formed agenda.
4. The "offside" goal scored by Eduardo Vargas against Peru
The linesman made a mistake here, and it was an important one. Chile's goal broke the deadlock, and it did so at the psychologically important moment coming up to half-time.
But a look at the move in normal time shows it was not an easy decision to make. Alexis Sanchez put in a cross-cum-shot from the left, and in front of the linesman to the right was a blur of movement.
Aranguiz burst past the defensive line from an onside position, attracted the attention of the goalkeeper and the ball hit the post. The rebound fell to Vargas, who bundled the ball over the line. With such a confusing scene in front of him, the linesman can surely be forgiven for awarding the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side.
The fact that the goal was given doesn't provide much evidence for a conspiracy—especially considering that Vargas had a legitimate goal mistakenly ruled out for offside early in the second half. Indeed, in the 3-3 group-phase draw with Mexico, Chile seemed unlucky, with two goals disallowed for the same motive.
5. A penalty not given for a foul on Paolo Guerrero
"I wasn't given a clear penalty," said Peru centre-forward Paolo Guerrero to Chilean TV after another superb performance. There clearly was contact between Guerrero and a Chilean defender as they raced for the ball toward the left edge of the penalty area in the second half. But, for what it is worth, I had a clear view of the incident, and it seemed obvious to me that Guerrero provoked the contact.
The evidence, as far as I can see it, does not point to some dastardly plot to ensure Chile go all the way to the final. Of course, the hosts have had an easy ride, but that is part of the game in the Copa. That easy ride stops now, with a final against an Argentina side buoyant after thrashing Paraguay.
The prospect is one of a thrilling final, a fiercely contested match between two attack-minded teams. And the hope is that after the game, everyone will be talking about football on a sunny Santiago afternoon, rather than conspiracies hatched in some dark and smoky room.
Quotes translated by the author.