After 99 years, it came down to 12 yards: Alexis Sánchez against Sergio Romero. If Sánchez scored, Chile were the Copa América champions and a wait that had lasted since the first Copa América, in 1916, would be over. The Arsenal forward approached the ball, swung open his left shoulder and, as Romero dived to his left, dinked the ball down the middle. As Panenkas go, it wasn’t great – Antonín Panenka explained in Issue Six of The Blizzard that it’s vital to strike the shot slowly so the goalkeeper has had time to dive out of the way and high enough that a trailing leg can’t save the ball – but it didn’t matter. Romero was gone, the ball was in and Chile had beaten Argentina in the shoot-out in the final.

Fireworks erupted from the roof of the stadium and, having been presented with the trophy, the players were packed into an open-topped bus for a reception with the president Michelle Bachelet – not that it did her much good: a poll the following Monday showed support for her had dropped to 27%, the lowest it’s been in her two terms in office.

Fans trooped back into the centre of Santiago, where it rapidly became apparent how little practice they’d had at celebrating. Cars tooted their horns, a few flatbed trucks careered about loaded with revellers waving flags, but for the most part, Chileans wandered around looking a little dazed. The dogs – given many wear jackets and collars, it would appear pets are allowed to roam free – whose sleek ubiquity had been such a feature of the tournament, seemed to be having the best time of anybody, rushing about in their usual packs, eyes wide at the nocturnal excitement. 

It had been a tense and gruelling month for Chile as, amid regular anti-government demonstrations and an environmental crisis, they grappled with the realisation that they might never have a better chance to win a trophy. As Santiago laboured under its worst drought for more than half a century, a fug of pollution sat over the city with neither wind nor rain to shift it. Every day the television news announced a series of numbers: if your car registration ended in any of those digits, you weren’t allowed to drive that day. People were warned not to do exercise outdoors. But the tournament, a unifying and steadying force, went on, heedless to what the air was doing to players.

Chile began with an anxious win over Ecuador, a diminished force without the injured Luis Antonio Valencia and Felipe Caicedo. The Estadio Nacional can be a ferocious venue, as it was when Jorge Sampaoli, Chile’s coach, led Universidad de Chile to the Copa Sudamericana in 2011. It is a stadium that, because of its history, feels about as representative of its nation as any national stadium can be. It was there, in November 1973, that Chile kicked off against nobody in a World Cup qualifying play-off after the USSR refused to take part in a game played in a stadium that had been used as a detention and torture centre following Augusto Pinochet’s coup against the democratically elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende . As a memorial to those who died in the stadium, a block of benches behind one of the goals is left permanently empty. Along the top is written “un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro” – a people without a memory is a people without a future. 

Questions of identity and memory preoccupy Chile. The human rights museum in Santiago is an extraordinary act of remembrance for what happened under Pinochet, an unsparing documentation of what followed in the months and years after the morning peace was shattered by the country’s own air force bombing the presidential palace, where Allende gave his final radio address. He died later that day, although whether he committed suicide as was initially claimed is unclear.

From the perspective of football, Chile were given a new identity in 2007, on the day that Marcelo Bielsa was appointed national coach. He instilled his quixotic hard pressing game and, as so often happens with bielsista teams, his side impressed many at the 2010 World Cup with their relentless commitment to a high line and attacking football, before losing in the last 16 to Brazil. In that, their performance was also typically Chilean. Chile always lose to the giants of South America: their reputation had long been of a side with an inferiority complex that lost its heads when the going got tough.

Bielsa perhaps began to change that, but there was a backslide under Claudio Borghi leading to his replacement by a third Argentinian in a row, Sampaoli. He has always declared himself proudly bielsista and was born in Casilda, just 28 miles from Bielsa’s hometown of Rosario. He is tough and more pragmatic than his philosophical leader, but last year his side also lost to Brazil in the last 16 of the World Cup. 

Still, the sense was that he had hardened Chile. This is arguably the greatest ever generation of Chilean players, with representatives at Barcelona, Juventus and Arsenal. Heading into the Copa América all of them were fit – even if there were constant worries about Sánchez being fatigued – and pretty much in form. With home advantage as well, the sense was that, if not now then when? 

Understandably the result was nervousness. The national anthem was belted out lustily. The stadium, filled almost entirely with red-shirted fans, throbbed with noise. Chile began well and Sánchez, played in by Jorge Valdivia, shot narrowly wide in the first minute. But when the breakthrough wouldn’t come, nerves set in. Jefferson Montero kept getting in behind Mauricio Isla. Finally, 21 minutes into the second half, Vidal tumbled in the corner of the box. The Argentinian referee Néstor Pitana gave a generous penalty, which Vidal converted. Eduardo Vargas added a second late on and Chile had an opening win. It hadn’t been convincing but, by the time they played again, the consensus was that they’d probably looked the best of the main contenders.

The night after Argentina’s opening game, against Paraguay, Lionel Messi paced the corridors of the team hotel in La Serena, unable to sleep. At half-time, his side had been 2-0 up, Sergio Agüero capitalising on a misconceived backpass and Messi converting a penalty awarded after Ángel Di María had leapt out of the way of a challenge that never came (although before anybody gets too outraged it should be noted that Messi was denied a quite blatant penalty a few minutes later). They might not have been playing brilliantly, but they were comfortably the better side. It looked, in some ways, like the perfect opening game: a convincing win but with room for improvement.

But just before the hour, an Argentina move was interrupted and the ball played quickly forward to Nelson Haedo Valdez. The centre-backs had split to allow Javier Mascherano to drop in between them from his central midfield position and that left him exposed. As he backtracked to try to gain time and allow for regrouping, Haedo saw Sergio Romero strangely positioned and lashed a shot past him from 25 yards. It was a fine strike, but one that Argentina, with their slightly mannered way of playing out from the back, had rather brought on themselves. 

Still, there shouldn’t have been any reason for panic, but a strange desperation set in. Argentina started chasing a third goal and the more they did, the more exposed they were at the back. With 16 minutes remaining, Gerardo Martino, mystifyingly, took off Javier Pastore and Agüero and brought on Carlos Tévez and Gonzalo Higuaín. He later said that he wanted to kill the game by scoring a third but it was hard to see the tactical rationale. Argentina were creating chances; their issue was that they were also conceding them. It was a time to stabilise the midfield, for offering Mascherano support. Inevitably there were questions as to whether Martino had felt pressured to give Higuaín and, particularly, Tévez time on the pitch. 

Tévez always exists in a bubble of scrutiny. Dismissed as a disruptive presence after the 2010 World Cup he had only been called into the squad for the 2011 Copa América because of lobbying by the governor of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli. After he had sulked his way through the tournament, missing a vital penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out against Uruguay, he had been dropped by Alejandro Sabella, who used his exile from Manchester City after his touchline row with Roberto Mancini in Munich as an excuse not to select him and then, once his side was performing well in qualifying, cautioned against disrupting a settled side. But Martino decided Tévez’s form for Juventus merited a recall and so brought on himself an extra layer of pressure. Olé, Argentina’s main sports paper, made a habit of reporting on the brilliant goals Tévez was scoring in training. Even if there had been a sound and obvious tactical reason for those substitutions, the very fact of Tévez’s selection would have led to questions.

With a minute remaining a free-kick was pumped into the Argentina box. Paulo da Silva headed down, and Lucas Barrios thumped the ball past Romero from just inside the box. “We started to lose the ball,” said Mascherano. “After the first Paraguay goal we tried to defend in a block but we were pressed until we conceded an equaliser. We couldn’t do it. We can’t make excuses. We played with fire and we were burned.” The real concern was that Mascherano’s description of what Argentina were trying to do was so different from Martino’s. No wonder there was tactical incoherence.

Messi was named as man of the match but turned down the award, which went instead to Haedo. At the team meeting the following day Messi, after his sleepless night, was unusually vocal, which in itself seemed telling. At the World Cup last year he was a silent captain, a distant, enigmatic figure whose armband seemed to denote his primacy but not any sense of leadership. Before extra-time in the last-16 tie against Switzerland he was the last to join the huddle; by the time he got there, Mascherano was already giving a team talk. This Messi, re-engaged, refocused and fitter than last season, back in form, cheekbones bulging from his face, it seemed, felt ready for a responsibility that last year he was willing to leave to others.

Rancagua lies about an hour and a half south of Santiago by train, which is to say a little over 50 miles. People in the capital seemed fairly dismissive of the place and perhaps the town is ordinary, a low-rise grid of unprepossessing streets. The setting, though, is spectacular, snow-capped mountains rising all around. And Rancagua made itself welcoming. 

Perhaps no other tournament seems such a good fit as the Copa América. World Cups, these days, are almost invariably played out in vast, antiseptic stadiums, any character driven out by the sterile hand of Fifa. Euros are a little less commercial but suffer a similar problem: big modern stadiums tend to be all but interchangeable, all concrete and plastic and generic concession stands. African Cups of Nations are more complex: they’re less corporate, but often new stadiums have to be built for tournament because existing facilities aren’t up to scratch, the result being a rash of identikit soulless Chinese constructions across the continent. But the Copa settles happily into existing stadiums, the result of which is a real sense of place.

Rancagua only hosted two games, but the town made the most of it, decorating bus-stops to look like goals and handing out biscuits in the media centre. Perhaps other tournaments have outgrown such homely quirks, but this surely is more what they ought to be about than the creation of white elephants that sap resources and generate resentment. Here, it felt, people were excited by the tournament, by the sense that the continent had come to visit and the eyes of Latin America and beyond were upon it.

For that first game, they’d come most specifically from Colombia and Venezuela. Venezuela had been semi-finalists in Argentina four years ago, a solid team that broke well, but they’d fallen away in World Cup qualifying. It was Colombia everybody wanted to see, a side that had delighted at the World Cup before coming off worse in the scrap of a quarter-final against Brazil. At the World Cup, though, they hadn’t had Radamel Falcao. 

It seems extraordinary now that Colombia should have expended so much emotional energy hoping Falcao would recover from the knee injury he suffered in January 2014 in time for the World Cup. Back then, of course, he was their totem and he had finished as top-scorer in World Cup qualifying, but a miserable season at Manchester United led many to point out that he hadn’t played especially well in the months before his injury for Monaco. In a squad with a glut of fine forward players, was there really still room for him?

José Pékerman, Colombia’s urbane Argentinian coach, gave his answer clearly enough, making Falcao captain again. It was an act of faith as much as anything and, in the build-up to the tournament, there were indications Falcao might live up to it as he scored in five successive games to become his country’s all-time leading goalscorer.

Even leaving his form aside, the return of Falcao was problematic. Pékerman had used him as a lone striker away in World Cup qualifying against Venezuela and Colombia had lost; that seemed to persuade him Falcao had always to play in a front two, which meant Rodríguez starting on the left in a 4-4-2, his movement far more restricted than it had been in the fluid 4-2-3-1 used in Brazil. For that first game, Pékerman started with Carlos Bacca, who had been in excellent form for Sevilla, scoring twice in the Europa League final, as Falcao’s partner, but the system looked blockish, Rodríguez was restricted and Venezuela’s resolute defence wasn’t unduly troubled. Just before the hour came the inevitable: Colombia dozed off as a throw-in was launched into their half, the ball was played to the back post and returned to the centre where Salomón Rondón headed in. Pékerman took off Bacca, who had worked hard for little reward, for Téo Guttiérez, who had had a grim season at River Plate but at least naturally dropped off a front man. Colombia improved, but it wasn’t enough.

That night, in Temuco, Brazil began their tournament against Peru as they had finished the World Cup – in comical disarray. They may have won 10 out of 10 friendlies under Dunga, but two minutes in, David Luiz knocked a ball square across his own goal. Whether it was meant as backpass for Jefferson or whether he intended to hack it clear himself wasn’t clear, but the goalkeeper stabbed a nervy pass to a wrong-footed Dani Alves allowing Christian Cueva in to score. Neymar headed in a Dani Alves cross to level two minutes later and, after a generally disjointed display for his side, played a remarkable pass in injury time, finding a path through a thicket of defenders to give Douglas Costa a simple finish for the winner.

When Mauricio Soria was appointed coach of Bolivia earlier this year, he said he wanted to make an impact similar to that made by Marcelo Bielsa on Chile, instilling an attacking style of play that could become a foundation for self-improvement. There was little sign of attacking intent in their opener, but they played well enough, forcing a 0-0 draw against Mexico in the Pacific resort of Viña del Mar. 

That was a promising start, but against Ecuador in their second game, Bolivia reached heights unknown in two decades. Not since 1995 had they won a competitive game outside Bolivia but, after the stooping centre-back Ronald Raldes had headed them in front from a corner, Martin Smedberg clipped in a neat second from 25 yards. Bolivia’s approach to defending set-plays was robust and eventually the referee, Joel Aguilar of El Salvador, snapped and gave a penalty. If Bolivia were entitled to feel hard done by in terms of the specifics of the incident, they’d grappled with opponents so often before few neutrals had much sympathy. But Enner Valencia was forced to retake his penalty, saw his second effort saved and, within a minute, Marcelo Martins had converted a penalty for Bolivia who, incredibly, found themselves 3-0 up at half-time despite having only had four shots to Ecuador’s thirteen. The backlash began early, Valencia scoring two minutes into the second half but, despite constant Ecuadorean pressure, Bolivia only conceded one further goal, to Miller Bolaños, and hung on for a 3-2 win.

The audio was clear. “Are you going to handcuff me?” Arturo Vidal asked.

“Don’t make this harder for yourself,” said the policeman who was trying to arrest him on suspicion of drink-driving.

“Handcuff me,” Vidal said, “But you’re going to screw all of Chile.”

There’s no way of sugar-coating it: it was as egregious a case of a footballer playing on his reputation as you’re likely to find – and yet many in Chile supported him. Although his form would dip as the tournament went on, at that point Vidal had been Chile’s best player; it seemed then that if Vidal had been expelled from the squad, it would have been a fatal blow to Chile’s hopes of winning the tournament.

Before taking his ill-advised trip to a casino, Vidal had been exceptional in Chile’s 3-3 draw with Mexico, a game that highlighted all the flaws the opening game had hinted at. The first two Mexico goals both originated from moves down the left, attacking the space behind Mauricio Isla, and both were headers. That Chile had the shortest team in the tournament – an average height of 1.76m with two centre-backs under 1.80m – suddenly seemed of huge significance. Having gone 2-0 down, Chile at least had the character to fight back. First Vidal headed in a corner then Eduardo Vargas, a player seemingly incapable of reaching his maximum for anyone other than Sampaoli, headed in a Vidal cross to level the scores before half-time. 

Vidal won and converted another penalty six minutes into the second half to give Chile a 3-2 lead, but they then committed their worst mistake of the tournament, the back four pushing out with the ball at the feet of Adrián Aldrete, giving him time to chip a simple pass into the path of Matías Vuoso, who ran on to score his second of the game. The draw all but guaranteed Chile’s place in the quarter-final, but it also raised major questions as to whether they had the defensive capacity to lift the title.

Chile’s squad rallied behind Vidal. Sampaoli had dropped players in the past for oversleeping, but here he was indulgent, insisting the issue had to take its course in the courts. As it turned out, it never got to trial. Vidal apologised, paid compensation to another driver involved in the crash, donated sports equipment and was banned from driving for two years during which time he agreed to give motivational speeches to prison inmates. 

But a sour taste lingered. “We are getting used to people committing wrong in all fields, above all in politics and football,” said the former national team forward turned politician Leonardo Véliz. “In the end they try to justify it by giving excuses as if nothing has happened.” He was, fairly clearly, referring to a series of scandals that had afflicted the Bachelet government, most recently the resignation in June of her chief of staff, Jorge Insunza, over allegations he received payments from the mining company Antofagasta Minerals while chairing a government mining committee.

“You know when you get a job and move away from home and you’re quite mature, then you go back to stay with your parents and you become a teenager again?” asked the journalist James Young, who is based in Belo Horizonte. “That’s Neymar when he goes back to Brazil.” Last season at Barcelona, Neymar had become a more likeable figure, more of a team man, far less inclined to fling himself down and berate referees than he had been. With Brazil, though, perhaps because of the pressure he felt as the one genuine star of the side, he became again a petulant figure with an infuriating air of entitlement.

Neymar’s first experience of the Copa América had been an unhappy one. In Argentina four years ago, Brazil had picked a young squad with the stated aim of blooding the likes of Neymar and Ganso before the World Cup. To an extent it worked, at least in as far as Neymar learned that cynical foreign full-backs such as Roberto Rosales and Darío Verón kick opponents without compunction and that foreign referees are prepared to turn a blind eye or at least that they don’t instinctively give a free-kick just because the next designated saviour of the Brazilian game is pleading with them. This, believes Tim Vickery, the doyen of South American football writing in English, is a feature of a generation that has learned football not through the lawlessness of street games, where players have to work out how to look after themselves, but inside, playing futsal in organised competitions.

In the unconvincing opening win over Peru, Brazil’s dependence on Neymar had been shocking, but it hadn’t been clear whether that was because there was nobody else or because Neymar demanded centre-stage. The most worrying sign had come shortly before half-time when he’d got himself booked for wiping away the referee’s foam before a free-kick – a Brazil free-kick – while squabbling with Diego Tardelli over who was going to take it. It didn’t take much to see that Neymar was feeling the pressure, that he might perhaps be tipped over the edge. 

And, of course, given what had happened in the World Cup last year, there was a particular edge to the second group game against Colombia, in the other stadium in Santiago, El Monumental. In Fortaleza, Brazil’s targeting of James Rodríguez in their last-16 meeting with Pékerman’s side had led to a violent game that culminated with Neymar fracturing two vertebrae when he was kicked in the back by Juan Camilo Zúñiga; Neymar was always going to be even more fired up and thus even closer to the brink.

Dunga complained afterwards that there had been a calculated plan to provoke Neymar; of course there had been. Juan Cuadrado bundled him off the ball with a brusque shoulder charge early on, and Zúñiga seemed to take particular delight in sashaying past him after dispossessing him in the first half. Brazil were poor; Colombia, having selected Téo Gutiérrez ahead of Bacca, had a less blockish shape than they had had against Venezuela, and for quarter of an hour before half-time, created chance after chance. With the Falcao of two years ago, they would surely have been comfortably ahead. As it was, he looked as lumbering as ever, his lack of confidence highlighted when, leading a break with players either side of him, he opted to shoot from 25 yards – the act of a man for whom the desperation to score and ease the criticism for at least a while had overcome rational thought. Colombia had, though, taken one chance, the centre-back Jeison Murillo turning on a loose ball in the box after a Cuadrado free-kick to hook a shot over the line.

Then, in first-half injury-time, Dani Alves found space on the right and crossed for Neymar who met the delivery with a firm downward header. As he made contact, it seemed a certain goal, but David Ospina, scrambling across his line, pulled off a remarkable save. As the ball ricocheted out, it hit Neymar, tumbling forward from the momentum of his header and was diverted goalwards. Again Ospina saved, the ball wedging between his legs. The goalkeeper gestured angrily and the referee, Enrique Osses, flourished a yellow card: Neymar, it turned out, had used his hand – although it was impossible to know whether he had done so deliberately or whether the ball had simply hit him as he fell forwards. 

So perhaps the card was unfortunate; what followed, though, was disgraceful. Neymar grabbed Osses by the shoulder. A few seconds later, he clouted Cuadrado and then, having been penalised for that, punched the ball away. Any of those three actions could have earned him a second yellow, but the half-time whistle won him a reprieve.

The full-time whistle did not. Brazil had barely made an impression on Colombia in the second half, their game-plan by the end nothing more sophisticated than whacking crosses into the box. Neymar was frustrated. A free-kick was cleared as the whistle blew and fell to Neymar, who smacked a shot petulantly goalwards, hitting Pablo Armero in the chest, although he went down as though struck in the head. Murillo ran over to remonstrate to which Neymar responded with a flicked backward headbutt into the Colombian’s face. Bacca then charged over and shoved Neymar, provoking a melee of pushing and wagging fingers. Osses waited until Neymar had reached the mouth of the tunnel and showed a red card, then sent off Bacca as well. In the bowels of the stadium, the arguments went on, Neymar verbally abusing the referee so that when his sanction was announced two days later, he was banned for four games.

“Colombia showed that they are a very experienced team,” Dunga said. “Our players at times got caught in their provocations and forgot to play football. Brazil have to play football. Brazil can’t go to war, we have to focus on what we do best, which is play football.”

Perhaps it was what they did best 30 years ago but not anymore. Surely Dunga, an arch-pragmatist as a player, an enforcer who almost willed himself into being a reasonable passer, a captain who when he lifted the World Cup in 1994 unleashed not a smile but a volley of expletives against his critics, doesn’t believe that? Surely nobody can. Or is the self-mythologising so great that Brazilian football doesn’t see its own cynicism, just as it portrayed Neymar as a martyr of the World Cup quarter-final when he turned out to be the ultimate victim of a game in which they were responsible for 31 of the 54 fouls committed? It takes a staggering level of entitlement to be that blind.

With two games each played, no side had won both its games, which should have meant a tense final round. Unfortunately Conmebol is so at the mercy of television revenues that the last games in each group were played consecutively rather than simultaneously. Ecuador, at last finding some form, beat Mexico 2-1, which meant both Chile and Bolivia knew they were through before their game kicked off. Chile hit their rhythm early and won 5-0 but the scheduling meant the game lacked edge.

Argentina had overcome a dogged Uruguay in their second game, Agüero heading in a Pablo Zabaleta cross after smart interplay between Messi and Pastore for the only goal, and they secured top spot with a pedestrian 1-0 win over Jamaica, although they did hit the woodwork twice. The inability to turn domination into goals was one concern, but so too was the way in all three group games Argentina had ended up facing a late siege having apparently been in control midway through the second half. Martino’s complaints of fatigue were puzzling – even with three players who played in the Champions League final, why should Argentina be worse afflicted than any other side? – but seemed accurate. Paraguay and Uruguay both progressed after a grim 1-1 draw, both goals headers from set-pieces.

In Group C, where Venezuela had surrendered the advantage the win over Colombia had given them by having Fernando Amorebieta sent off on the half hour against Peru for a blatant stamp and seeing a game in which they had appeared to have the upper hand transformed into a 1-0 defeat, every team began its final game on three points. Peru, making the most of Amorebieta’s beneficence, defended superbly against Colombia, who again lacked fluidity, and drew 0-0, guaranteeing their place in the quarter-final. A draw in the final game and Colombia were out; a win and the defeated side was eliminated.

Without Neymar, Brazil looked a far more balanced side. Robinho, now 31, returned and offered a reminder of what a good player he always was beneath the posturing and the hype. With Robinho holding possession and measuring passes, it also became apparent just how frenetic Brazil had become. Willian, enjoying the service, had his best game of the tournament. Thiago Silva volleyed Brazil ahead from an early corner and, when Roberto Firmino touched in a Willian cross seven minutes after half-time, the game looked won. But Brazil panicked: this, perhaps, was the insecurity brought about by the 7-1 defeat to Germany last year, the flip-side of the entitlement, a gnawing sense that perhaps there was nothing there but a memory of a golden past. Venezuela began to play without fear. Dunga brought on David Luiz and Marquinhos. Miku turned in the rebound from a free-kick and then failed by a fraction to get his head on a cross from the left. By the end, Brazil had four centre-backs on the pitch and Dani Alves playing on the right wing. In injury-time, Elias received the ball in the centre-circle, turned, saw there was no Brazilian in the Venezuela half, and belted the ball into the corner anyway. Jogo bonito it was not.

First there was a tingle in my nose, then a pricking in my eyes and then, as the taxi-driver began hurriedly winding up his window, an intense taste of mustard in the throat. It took a moment to work out what was going on: tear gas. As we reached the junction with Avenida Vicuña Mackenna, a line of Carabineros in drab green walked past, helmets on, shields and batons raised. An armoured truck trundled behind them. The driver pulled out and followed, slowly. Glass crunched under the wheels. As we approached Plaza Italia, the police line stopped abruptly, turned, and started jogging towards us. I defensively grabbed my accreditation laminate, but they went past the taxi and clambered into a truck that had pulled up behind us. 

We trundled on to the edge of the square and got out. Carabineros stomped about, boots ringing on the wet concrete that gleamed red and blue from the line of police cars that sat outside Baquedano Metro station: amid the drought this was clear evidence that water cannon had been deployed. A couple of Carabineros aside, the square itself was deserted, strewn with the popped skins of discarded inflatables, beer bottles and paper. We carried on, over the grubby trickle of the Mapocho River, to Bellavista, an area of bars and restaurants just five minutes from Plaza Italia. Drunk fans reeled about the street, music blared from clubs, nobody seemed particularly bothered by whatever had happened in the square. This, it seemed, was just what happened: people gathered, perhaps somebody did something daft and the police over-reacted. 

Two days before the tournament began, police dispersed a march of 200,000 professors, lecturers and students protesting about educational reform (they said the government’s proposals, which would have provided free university education for 60% of students, didn’t go far enough) with tear gas, which then wafted down some of Santiago’s busiest shopping streets. Sampaoli, hinting that he vaguely supported the demonstrators, asked them not to disrupt the tournament and, by and large, they didn’t, but it seemed like almost every day protests were dispersed in one city or another with tear gas and water cannon.

It should have been a night of celebration. Chile had played excellently to beat Uruguay, producing by far their most rounded performance in the tournament. Sampaoli had been concerned by Uruguay’s height advantage and had had his defenders practising winning headers above a tape he’d stretched 2m above the ground. Claudio Bravo was notably more decisive in coming to punch high balls than he had been. This was evidence of Sampaoli at his best: presented with a problem, he came up with a solution.

The other great success had come at the other end of the pitch in the form of Valdivia, an inconsistent number 10 who hit a patch of golden form at just the right time. Twice in the opening minutes of Chile’s game against Ecuador, Valdivia had slipped passes through for Alexis Sánchez. Both opportunities were missed, but the passage of play was instructive: Sampaoli wanted Sánchez to pull left and Vargas right, creating space for Valdivia to drive into. This was the beauty of his midfield diamond: it could morph easily into a back three or a front three depending the positioning of Valdivia or Marcelo Díaz.

With Valdivia, though, shape is only part of it. He started Chile’s opening game of the World Cup, against Australia, but thereafter was restricted to the bench. Sampaoli, the suggestion was, didn’t quite trust him. And, really, why would he? Valdivia has never been the most professional of players, his lively social life and turbulent relationship with his wife, Daniela Aránguiz, making him a staple of Chilean gossip magazines. In 2011, he, Vidal, Jean Beausejour, Carlos Carmona and Gonzalo Jara were all suspended by the Chilean FA for arriving back at camp late following his daughter’s baptism, an incident now known as “el bautizazo”. Claudio Borghi, Sampaoli’s predecessor, didn’t pick him for two years after that.

After Vidal’s arrest, it was widely suggested that Valdivia had been with him in the casino, something that prompted him to go on Channel 13 to defend himself. He accused the media of “irresponsibility” in their reporting of the issue and insisted he is a changed man. “I am the first one to be grateful to Sampaoli and I ask you to not get me in any trouble where there is none,” he said. “Someone said that I was with Vidal during the accident and that I had a fight with Sampaoli or Mauricio Isla. I have already paid for my sins. I have paid for all the bad things I have done, I hope you get this. Don’t get me in trouble any more. I try to train, be quiet and nothing else. Please, just let me train and let me play.”

He proved his point by setting up goals for Sánchez and Gary Medel and being named man of the match in a 5-0 win over Bolivia. Against Uruguay, he was persistently involved, forever dropping off into space, looking to prise open a typically well-drilled defence with measured through-balls. For an hour it was finely poised contest  but then Edinson Cavani wagged a hand at Gonzalo Jara, who collapsed, and the forward received a second yellow card. At first, it seemed Cavani had simply been stupid but television replays showed what the Brazilian referee Sandro Ricci had missed: Jara had prodded Cavani between the buttocks with his finger, an act for which he was subsequently banned for three matches. It was later alleged he’d also taunted Cavani over the arrest of his father on drink-driving charges two days earlier following an incident in which a motorcyclist was killed. Along with the expediency demonstrated over Vidal, the incident underlined Chile’s new edge: they weren’t great romantics chasing a bielsista dream any more; they were just another side. 

Inevitably, the red card tipped the balance Chile’s way and, when the goal came, it was Valdivia who was key as he retained his composure to lay the ball off to the onrushing Mauricio Isla with nine minutes remaining. The game ended in a mass brawl that erupted after Jorge Fucile had been harshly penalised for a foul in front of the linesman. Three Uruguay players charged the official but Ricci, mystifyingly, sent off Fucile and the Uruguay coach Óscar Washington Tabárez who, if anything, had been a calming influence. It seemed a classic case of a referee who knew he had to take action but not knowing what and so sanctioning the two most easily identifiable figures: the player who had committed the foul and the 68 year old man in a tie who walked with a limp.

Uruguay’s frustration was understandable, but however distasteful what Jara had done, Chile had played exceptionally well and, perhaps most importantly, had by and large kept their cool. This was not the Chile of old, prone to mental collapse, but a tough side that had matched Uruguay in every department and retained their faith in their way of playing,

In the second semi-final, Peru, growing in stature with every game, dismissed Bolivia in Temuco, Paolo Guerrero scoring a hat-trick in a 3-1 win to set up a semi-final against the hosts.

The stadium in Viña del Mar, the home of Everton, is set into a hill, edged on one side by a steep, shrub-laden bank and on the other by a lagoon, on which a dilapidated steamship lolls incongruously. It’s a stunning setting and it hosted a stunning quarter-final. Argentina at last hit form, but Colombia, clinging on desperately, resisted heroically; Pékerman had dropped Falcao at last, but the disintegration of his midfield, without the suspended Carlos Sánchez and the injured Abel Aguilar and Edwin Valencia, meant it made little difference. Messi was excellent, Pastore was better, but the ball simply wouldn’t go in. In the Colombia goal, David Ospina was inspired: amid of string of blocks, he made a remarkable double save to kick away an Agüero effort before he recovered to push out Messi’s follow-up header and then, late on, he hurled himself to his left to turn a powerful Nicolás Otamendi header against the post. With 18 minutes remaining, Tévez came on for Agüero and, late on, he ran onto a through-ball and lofted a shot over Ospina; Murillo, though, chased back to hook the ball off the line.

With the need to fit in with television schedules across the continent meaning there was no extra-time, the game went to penalties. Three Colombians missed, but Lucas Biglia and Marcos Rojo both wasted opportunities to win the tie. Finally, Tévez stepped up to take Argentina’s seventh penalty. It had been his miss in the shoot-out in the quarter-final four years ago that had led to his exile – and Martino admitted he’d left Tévez till seventh for fear he might miss again – but this time he converted and so it could at least be said that his return from the wilderness had ended in some small measure of redemption.

It was not 7-1. It was not an epic night of shame that will echo through eternity. It was an ordinary defeat, a mundane exit of a quotidian side, beaten on penalties by Paraguay in the quarter-final for the second Copa América in a row. Brazil claimed that they didn’t care too much, that their priority is World Cup qualification, but if that is the case then the question has to be: why? Why a year after a humiliating World Cup exit would you not be trying to put things right? Why, three years before the next major tournament, would you decide you didn’t much care about this one? If the squad had been packed with promising young talent, if the aim had been to blood youth and toughen it before the greater trials to come – which was the case to an extent four years ago – then the excuse might hold. But it was not. The average age of the side that started against Paraguay was 28 years and nine months: seven of the eleven were over thirty. Yet at the same time, only Fernandinho of that side had started the 7-1. There had been change but it had been an oddly retrograde form of change – which was perhaps always likely given the manager, given that Brazil had decided to replace Luiz Felipe Scolari with his predecessor, Dunga, substituting one boorish dinosaur for another.

Brazil actually began the game relatively well, looking as comfortable in possession as they had in the first half against Venezuela. They took the lead after 15 minutes with a well-worked goal, Dani Alves crossing for Robinho to score as Roberto Firmino either dummied or missed it at the near post. But Brazil retreated. The passing moves became less frequent. Paraguay, who had been positive from the start, began to dominate. By half-time, the shot with which Robinho scored was still Brazil’s only touch in the Paraguay box. There was no sense of fear; whatever aura those yellow shirts once projected has disappeared now. Paraguay were unsophisticated but effective. They hit the ball long to Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Haedo Valdez. They used the pace of Derlis González and Édgar Benítez on the flanks. With 18 minutes to go another cross was whipped in from the right. Thiago Silva jumped for it and, mystifyingly, just as he had playing for Paris St-Germain against Chelsea last season, flapped at the ball with his hand. González converted the penalty. The largely Chilean crown in Concepción hooted its delight; their contempt for Brazil was clear.

The shoot-out carried a strange inevitability. Dunga had brought Everton Ribeiro off the bench with a couple of minutes to go to take a penalty; he dragged his effort wide. Douglas Costa fired over and, although Santa Cruz missed, González converted to take Paraguay through.

That meant that all four coaches in the semi-final were Argentinian: Argentina remains the intellectual hub of the South American game. No Brazilian has coached a team other than Brail at the tournament since Paulo César Carpegiani with Paraguay in 1997 which, even given the language issue, is startling and indicative of the wider decay in the Brazilian game. When they turned back to Dunga it wasn’t just because there was a sense that after the 7-1 there was a need for something safe and familiar; it was also because there was no outstanding younger candidate. 

As Tim Vickery has argued, Brazil is reaping the harvest of the lurch into technocracy following the coup in 1964. For a time, the military government enjoyed a period of economic stability because it placed technocrats in charge of the economy. There was an urge to measure everything. The group-stage exit from the World Cup in 1966 left a greater legacy than the glorious success four years later: Brazilian football, at least in terms of its hierarchy, became obsessed with running as much as the Europeans. That was why an army PT instructor, Claudio Coutinho, worked with the squad at the 1974 World Cup and was coach for the 1978 tournament, and why Brazil were so cussedly functional through the seventies. The early eighties and Telê Santana’s period in charge saw a reversion to a more traditional, artistic school, but the paradigm had changed. From 1990 onwards, Brazilian football has been at heart pragmatic, the stodge occasionally enlivened by brilliant forwards or full-backs. What there has not been since the eighties, though, is a true playmaking midfielder, the sort of creator who sets the tempo of the game, as Gérson or Falcão or Toninho Cerezo once did.

But worse, perhaps, is the change in attitude. “The pressure to win will always exist in Brazil,” Dunga said before the tournament. “The national team must remain competitive and winning at any cost.” As Vickery has noted repeatedly, Brazil often seems a society less in love with football than with winning – and in that regard it’s notable that Globo, which had the rights to show the final, didn’t broadcast it live – and that mentality has come to be reflected in the way they play. Scolari’s side was adept at tactical fouling and, for all that it was Neymar who was the ultimate victim of that World Cup quarter-final against Colombia, it should be remembered that Brazil had clearly targeted James Rodríguez. A youth team at a World Cup around the turn of the millennium would wait in their dressing-room long after the referee had called them for kick-off, then charge out and spit on their opponents as they waited in the tunnel. Even if the plan wasn’t devised by Brazil’s coaches, it was at the very least condoned by them – and this in a form of football that’s supposed to about player development. And this from a country that has marketed itself – with Nike’s help – as the great exponents of jogo bonito.

Apologists will point out that Brazil have been bad before and have always recovered. That, of course, is true: between the World Cup win of 1970 and the Copa América success of 1989, for instance, they won nothing at all, playing first physical and cynical football and then a more artistic interpretation. And Brazil did win the Under-20 World Cup in 2011 before losing to Serbia in the final this year (although they failed to qualify in 2013). With a population of 200 million and a developed football culture, it still generates large numbers of decent players. Look at the side that played in the 2011 U-20 final: Oscar, Philippe Coutinho, Danilo, Casemiro – that’s the nucleus of a very decent side. The raw materials are there. The problem, rather, is what happens next, the honing of potential into genuine world-class players, and of turning out a national side that makes the most of the players they have.

Part of the issue is economic, with good young players being lured away by wealthier leagues while still in their teens: 12 of the squad at the Copa América have played fewer than 50 league games in Brazil. Yet Brazilian club football is wealthier by far than any other South American nation, which makes the fact that they don’t dominate the Copa Libertadores an indicator of failure. In terms of coaching and administration Brazilian football is a disaster. “They don’t produce anything anymore,” Arsène Wenger told the Wall Street Journal before the World Cup. “Even in midfield, they’re good – but they’re not the great Brazilians of the past.”

After Uruguay’s complaints, Chile got lucky again with the refereeing in their semi-final, at least in the first half. Five minutes in, Vidal tangled with Carlos Zambrano by the corner-flag and ended up shoving the Peru centre-back in the face. It might have been a red card and could have been a yellow but the Venezuelan referee José Argote gave neither. A minute later, Sánchez tumbled in the box but Argote deemed that he hadn’t been fouled and then booked Zambrano when he demanded a yellow card for simulation. It seemed harsh, but then Zambrano probably should have been booked for his part in the clash with Vidal. Finally, on 20 minutes, Zambrano followed through with a clearance and clattered Charles Aránguiz. To widespread surprise, Argote produced a red card. 

It was not, as many claimed, an outrageous decision. Zambrano was reckless and it was possible that he even deliberately allowed his kick to catch Aránguiz in the lower back. Had Argote shown a second yellow, nobody would have raised any issues. But the decision undoubtedly changed the game. Peru had been the better side until then, defending well and countering with menace. Jefferson Farfán had headed against the post and Carlos Lobatón had had a shot from outside the box deflected just wide. 

When Ricardo Gareca took the Peru job earlier this year, they seemed adrift and had lost six of their previous seven games against Conmebol opposition. At Vélez Sarsfield, whom he led to three Argentinian championships, Gareca created tough, defensively resolute sides that still had an attacking edge and he achieved something similar in a remarkably short period of time with Peru. It was notable how his reaction to the red card was not to moan, but to begin reorganising immediately.

The momentum, though, shifted inexorably Chile’s way and they took the lead four minutes before half-time as Sánchez sent over an in-swinging ball from the left. Aránguiz ran beyond the defensive line and, although he missed the cross, he distracted the goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, the ball bouncing back off the post for Vargas to bundle it over the line. He had been a fraction offside as Sánchez delivered the cross, which added fuel to the conspiracy theories, but it was an almost impossibly hard call – had Aránguiz got a touch, Vargas would have been on.

Peru didn’t collapse, though, and continued to pose a threat through the forward surges of Advíncula and the combinations of Guerrero and Jefferson Farfán. Twice the winger had hit decent efforts straight at Claudio Bravo when, on the hour, he crossed and Gary Medel put through his own goal. This was the test. Chile had not played well and had looked anxious: they had spoken of developing a hard edge and this was when they had to prove it was more than just talk, that they wouldn’t capitulate as Chile sides of the past might have. Four minutes later, Vargas surged forward and lashed a viciously dipping shot into the top corner from 25 yards. Doubts dismissed.

Before the second half of the semi-final in Concepción, Argentina’s players paused in the tunnel to be addressed by Messi. The first half had followed an increasingly familiar pattern. Argentina had looked good if not especially penetrative going forward and a little shaky at the back, had gone ahead and had then let their advantage slip towards the end of the half. With Ezequiel Garay suffering a stomach bug, Martin Demichelis came in alongside Nicolás Otamendi, but the issue is not one of personnel; it’s of balance. Argentina don’t have a quick central defender and so are forced to sit deep which, because their natural style is to control possession, means they can get stretched, placing an intolerable burden on Mascherano, particularly when Javier Pastore, who generally had a good tournament, is so focused on exploiting the space created by Messi dropping off. That sounds like an implicit criticism of Lucas Biglia for not offering sufficient support and perhaps it is, but the greater surprise is that Ángel Di María couldn’t offer greater balance by dropping back from the left flank – an indication, perhaps, of the issues hinted at by Argentina’s backroom staff when they said he had been “ruined” by Louis van Gaal over the previous season.

After Santa Cruz, at 33 a sad figure seemingly burdened by the knowledge that all his potential will never come to anything like full fruition, had dragged an early chance wide, Argentina took a 15th-minute lead, Marcos Rojo hooking in a Messi free kick. Pastore, having wasted two fine chances, added a second from a Messi through ball after 27 minutes. 

Santa Cruz limped off soon after, victim of yet another injury. It was his replacement, Lucas Barrios, who was born in Argentina, who pulled Paraguay back into the game with a goal that, in terms of the laxity of the defending, was similar to the one Haedo had scored in the group game between the sides. When Bruno Valdez headed a clearance back into the danger area, the two central defenders were split, allowing Barrios to run on and score with a ferocious drive. Had another first-half substitute, Raúl Bobadilla, not blasted a decent chance over in the final minute of the half, Argentina would have gone in level.

The content of the talk in the tunnel is easy enough to guess: a message not to mess this up, not to suffer the sort of lapse of discipline that had undone Argentina in the opening group game. But what was significant was that it was Messi who was giving it. He was taking responsibility, growing into his role as leader.

It worked. Within two minutes the semi-final was effectively over as Di María ran onto a Pastore pass and finished calmly. From then on it was simply a question of how many. The fourth stemmed from a moment of Messi brilliance. He accelerated to reach a loose ball before Víctor Cáceres, then hopped by the midfielder’s challenge and set off on a typical run, holding off Pablo Aguilar and nutmegging Valdez, who lunged hopelessly, missing Messi and crashing into his teammate to leave them neatly stacked, one on top of the other. Pastore’s attempted finished from his through-ball was weak, but Di María was there to sweep in the rebound. Messi then played Di María into space to deliver a cross for Agüero to head a fifth before Higuaín lashed in a sixth after Messi, despite slipping, had forced the ball through to him. 

By the end, Messi, although his goal drought from open play stretched to over nine games, had played the final pass for three of the goals, the penultimate pass to two and the ante-penultimate to one. The Chileans in the Estadio Municipal had begun the game jeering Argentina – one song included the line, “You only lost the Falklands because you’re so stupid” – but by the end even they were cheering Messi. This, it seemed, was his moment, the time when he would finally win an international tournament at senior level.

The difference against Paraguay, Messi said, was that the early goal had forced Argentina’s opponents to come out and attack and that had left space for Argentina to exploit. That had happened against Paraguay in the group game, of course, but the problem then hadn’t been chance creation; it had been the struggles Argentina faced at the back. There’d also been an early goal in the group match against Jamaica, but they’d shown little interest in doing anything other than keeping the score down. The concern for Chile was that the way they play, pressing high up the pitch – albeit with more restraint in this tournament than often before – inevitably leaves space behind the defensive line. Understandably, in the build-up to the final, Sampaoli seemed obsessed by the issue of how to stop Messi.

He locked himself away for hours with videos while his players, Sánchez foremost among them, used a PlayStation 4 to try to glean tactical insights. In the end, he came out with his grand plan: play no out-and-out defenders apart from Isla, a highly adventurous right-back who had been relegated with Queens Park Rangers last season. It was a staggering gamble, but it worked. Díaz operated as a very deep-lying midfielder who often dropped between the two nominal centre-backs to form a back three, with Francisco Silva drafted in on the right of the pair and Gary Medel switching to the left to give him licence to push out to hound Messi. With no left-back having really convinced for the hosts, Jean Beausejour was selected there. There were moments early on when Messi got behind the former Birmingham winger, but as the game settled, it became apparent that Messi wasn’t finding space and had been unsettled by the physical nature of some of the tackling. At one point in the first half, Medel whacked him in the stomach – the assumption of many was that it was deliberate, although it may not have been – leaving him curled in pain on the touchline.

Of course it shouldn’t matter. Argentina shouldn’t be so reliant on Messi that they cannot conceive of a way of winning without him conducting everything. They’re not as dependent on him as Brazil have become on Neymar, but they are dependent to an unhelpful degree. Pastore was also quiet in the final, while Di María succumbed to injury after 28 minutes and was replaced by the ineffectual Ezequiel Lavezzi. 

The longer the game went on, the more comfortable Chile seemed. Sánchez flashed a volley just wide and then, in the final minute of the first half of extra-time, he capitalised on a defensive error and ran through only to lash his shot just over. Messi seemed discouraged, reduced to the sort of frustrated walk that had been his lot for most of the World Cup. Valdivia had done his job in helping to close him down but after Mati Fernández came on for him, Messi seemed almost overwhelmed. Yet still, in injury-time, he nearly set up the winner, sliding a pass through for Lavezzi. His cross was perhaps a little further in front of Higuaín than it needed to be but, still, the Napoli striker had a chance from three yards out to win it, but sent his shot into the side-netting. 

The penalties had a strange air of inevitability. Higuaín, predictably, missed and so did Éver Banega. Chile kept their calm and converted all four of their penalties and Argentina had lost in a major final again. If you include the Confederations Cup, they’ve reached the final of five of the last eight tournaments they’ve taken part in at senior level and lost them all. Immediately the knives came out for Messi but, while it’s true that he managed only 63 touches in normal time in the final – his lowest tally in the tournament – and was effectively shackled, it’s also the case that he would now be a world and continental champion if Higuaín hadn’t missed two key chances.

As Argentina tried to reconcile to another defeat and the extension of their 22-year drought, Chile celebrated. Aránguiz, Vidal, Sánchez, Valdivia and Vargas had all had fine tournaments, but this really was a triumph for Sampaoli, his tactical acumen and the bielsista tradition he represents. Argentinian ideas still reign, even if Argentina do not.