Two figures dominated the 2011 Copa América. Argentinians had hoped the key personality would be the bowl-clipped Lionel Messi. Brazilians had wanted it to be the extravagantly mohawked Neymar. But instead, to the chagrin of the organisers, who had done everything in their power to ensure a third successive Brazil v Argentina final, the two men who imposed their ideals were both sixty-something Uruguayans: the bespectacled and balding Sergio Markarian and the precisely side-parted Óscar Washington Tabárez.

Markarian, although only two years older than Tabárez, was his coach at Bella Vista in the seventies. There they came to share similar beliefs about how football should be played. Markarian also had a significant influence on the development of Paraguayan football, and is coach of Peru. In other words, he helped shape the teams who finished first, second and third in the competition, an astonishing, possibly unique, achievement.

But, first and foremost, this was Tabárez's tournament, a victory for his uncompromising ideals, for spirit, togetherness and tactical intelligence. Argentina and Brazil have more gifted individuals, but Uruguay were by some distance the best team. Diego Forlán commented that he'd always believed team spirit was a myth until this Uruguay came together. After a difficult year in which his relationships with both his fiancée, the Argentinian model Zaira Nada, and his manager at Atlético Madrid, Quique Sánchez Flores, fell apart, the 32 year old underwent something of a personal redemption in the tournament, helped, he acknowledged, by the sense he has with the Uruguay squad of being among friends. The forward Sebastián Abreu, who was limited to one brief substitute appearance, might have been expected to feel some measure of frustration; instead he joked after the final that if Luis Suárez was the player of the tournament, it meant he had been the best reserve. On one occasion, when Tabárez gave his players time off, they gathered in their hotel's television room to watch the Under-17 team playing in their World Cup. 

Perhaps it's unfair to compare the togetherness displayed by a team in victory to a side that has just lost, but the photo in Olé that showed Carlos Tevéz walking back to face the disgusted faces of his teammates having missed his penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out would have been unthinkable among the Uruguayans. Then again, Tevéz did seem to embody the failure of the hosts.

It began to go wrong for Argentina five days before the tournament started, as River Plate were relegated. It is hard to contextualise what that means for Argentinian football: this wasn't just unexpected or unprecedented; it was unthinkable. Even though they failed to win any of their last nine games of the season, the assumption had been that somehow they'd pull through; the Argentinian public was like those early audiences of Psycho traumatised when Marion Crane was killed because they couldn't believe a star like Janet Leigh could actually be bumped off. Suddenly there were no certainties; suddenly the fundamentals didn't apply The belief, still strong a month before the tournament, that on home soil Argentina would end their 18-year trophy drought, withered. 

Argentina entered a state that felt strangely like mourning. Even Boca Juniors fans seemed too stunned to take pleasure in their rival's decline. As one bostero taxi-driver put it, "If it can happen to them it can happen to us." The rioting that had followed River's defeat in a play-off prompted further introspection. The final few days of build-up were dominated by stories of what would happen to River, of JJ López's resignation and Matías Almeyda's appointment, of what sanction River would face for the crowd trouble, of talk of a switch to a 40-team top-flight to guarantee that none of the grandees could ever be relegated. There were even bizarre non-conspiracy theories claiming that Julio Grondona, the head of Argentinian Football Association' (AFA) had purposefully not intervened to prevent River's relegation because he wanted to offer an olive branch to TyC, the cable TV company that has the rights to Nacional B, with whom AFA had controversially broken its contract for the Primera as part of the fútbol para todos programme last year (evidently not; Grondona subsequently decided to break that contract as well). The Copa remained in the background; one Mastercard advert at the airport aside, no casual visitor arriving in Buenos Aires would have known there was a tournament about to start; the downside, perhaps, of the decision to take the tournament around the provinces. 

Sometime in the 48 hours after River's relegation, Sergio Batista, Argentina's coach, took a fateful decision. The first time the Copa really impinged on the front pages of the sports sections came as the news broke that Tevéz was in the team. Batista had initially left Tevéz out of his squads altogether — he said for reasons of tactics, but most assumed because the forward had been so vociferous in his support for Batista's predecessor, Diego Maradona. Even in the pre-tournament friendlies, when Argentina had looked fluid and increasingly promising, it had been Ángel Di María on the left of a 4-3-3. But suddenly, less than 100 hours before Argentina's opening game against Bolivia, Batista changed. Argentina's endless football news shows — a monument to journalists' ability to waffle about anything; before the third-place play-off they had an entire section devoted to two Scots who'd been spotted near the stadium in La Plata wearing kilts — finally had a real issue to discuss. Had Batista bowed to public pressure? Had Grondona had a word? Was this clever policy by Batista, letting Tevéz play in the early games to prove he wasn't a good tactical fit before the more important games later on?

That Tevéz created tactical problems was evident from that the opening game, against Bolivia in La Plata. The atmosphere was oddly flat, perhaps because of the cold, perhaps because of the muted build-up, perhaps simply because Argentinian fans, or at least those based near the capital, care far more for their club sides than the national team. The only sign of real passion before kick-off came as a huge banner was unveiled supporting one of the candidates in the Buenos Aires local elections, prompting booing from the opposite end of the ground.

Argentina began relatively positively, but having failed to break through early on, they seemed to be infected by the vague sense of restlessness from the crowd. Anxiety bred impatience, and Argentina became increasingly "vertical", which rapidly became the buzz-word of the tournament, at least for the fancied sides. The term was popularised by Marcelo Bielsa in his time as Argentina coach and refers to the habit of going directly for goal, whether with long balls, straight passes or, as tended to be the case with Argentina and Brazil, by dribbling. Tevéz and Messi were simultaneously either too deep or too high or just generally in each other's way. Add in Ezequiel Lavezzi having a shocker, wildly miscuing every attempted cross, and a midfield three that tended to stay too deep and flat, and the result was a series of pointless surges down blind alleys. 

And then came the moment of high farce that gave Bolivia a strangely predictable lead. A poor corner to the near post, Edivaldo Rojas's neat backheel volley and the ball pinballed between the heels of Ever Banega on the line to give Bolivia the lead. Sergio Agüero, coming off the bench, equalised with a superb volley, but the warning signs were there. "Argentina are not a team," said Costa Rica's Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe. "They are a group of individuals. They must no longer insist on winning with the names on the backs of their shirts, but as a team."

The one mitigating factor was the pitch in La Plata, which was small and bumpy, cutting up badly from the first minutes. Brazil were similarly hampered in their first game, also in La Plata, against Venezuela. After a promising first half, they too fell victim to verticality, and the highlight of the second half was a dog who somehow got over the deep moat that surrounds the pitch, ran a quick lap of honour and trotted off down the tunnel to great applause.

Brazil's struggles at least offered some comfort to Argentina but the hosts were poor again against Colombia in their second game. The approach to the stadium in Santa Fe is probably the most impressive in Argentina, a long sweep along a broad tree-lined avenue. The way the light from the iron lamps shone hazily through the mist and the smoke from the stalls grilling chorizo added a romantic aspect, and it was hard to avoid the thought that this would be the perfect setting for Lionel Messi, back in his home province, at last to produce his club form in an Argentina shirt. 

It was just over 110 miles south of Santa Fe, in Rosario, that a five-year-old Messi, who had been idly kicking a ball against a wall, was given a shirt several sizes too big for him and asked to make up the numbers in a boys' game. The ball came to his right foot, and not a lot happened; it came to his left, and his natural authority and touch made the coach, Salvador Ricardo Aparicio, react as though he'd seen a vision. Here, indisputably, was a pibe, the mischievous child who is truest incarnation of Argentinian football. In 1928, writing in El Gráfico, the journalist Borocoto wrote that a statue depicting Argentina's footballing spirit would depict "a pibe with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with the intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down by eating yesterday's bread." The greatest pibe, of course, was Diego Maradona, and even he accepts that Messi is his equal for skill. They share a similar urchin build, but Messi's hair no longer rebels against the comb; a streak of European discipline has entered his soul since he left Argentina for Spain at the age of 13.

That contributes to the sense of mistrust with which many Argentinians still treat Messi. In that, he resembles another native of Rosario who found fame abroad and was never entirely accepted back home: Che Guevara. The move did Messi good, both giving him the growth hormones Newell's Old Boys decided they could no longer afford and protecting him from temptation — Pep Guardiola, then the reserve coach, quickly stepped in when he started partying with Ronaldinho — and against the machinations of agents, which may yet destroy the career of Tevéz, his near contemporary. The public love of Tevéz, of the increasingly anachronistic individualistic past he represents, may be part of what is preventing Argentina from playing to expectations. That is not particularly to blame Tevéz. His work-rate is beyond reproach and allegations of selfishness seem unfair. It's just that he and Messi repeatedly occupied the same space. Perhaps they can't play together or perhaps a better coach than Batista, or even a coach with more time than is available at international level, would find a way. In this tournament, though, the attempt to squeeze in both was flawed, cost Argentina top place in the group and forced them into a tougher quarter-final than they would otherwise have faced (not that there's any guarantee they'd have beaten Peru).

Tevéz's popularity and Messi's perceived distance also mean that every time Messi underperforms for the national team — or, more accurately, every time the national team underperforms with Messi in the side — he is the one who takes the blame. It's easy to accuse him of not caring enough for Argentina, of not feeling the same passion for his country as a porteño like Tevéz, even though he turned down the chance to play for Spain at youth level. To an extent the issue is generational. Younger fans accept that players leave for Europe as an economic fact; older fans still to find it hard to accept that the Primera has become a diminished league. After the first game a taxi-driver even claimed that Argentina would be better picking only four Europe-based players if they wanted the team to play with pride. 

Even in Santa Fe, the cheer for Tevéz, rougher-edged and thus the more authentic avatar of pibismo, was much louder than for Messi when the teams were read out before kick-off. The stadium announcer neatly encapsulated the mood: "Con la 10, el mejor del mundo, Lionel Messi. Y con la 11, el jugador del pueblo, Carlos Tevéz". Messi is the best in the world, but Tevéz is the player of the people.

But Messi, marshalled superbly by Carlos Sánchez, was poor, frustrated and frustrating; no worse than anybody else on his team, but more noticeable because expectations are so high. Adrian Ramos missed a simple chance, poking over from eight yards; Dayro Moreno missed a simpler one, blasting wide of an empty net. Add in the three one-on-ones they missed, and Colombia should have won comfortably. As it was, they drew 0-0 and it was clear that Argentina's system had to be changed.

Batista, though, had a problem. Argentina is a country that privileges el 10 above all else. As the enganche — literally the 'hook' between midfield and attack —has been phased out elsewhere, most sides in the Argentinian league still employ one, often in a static 4-3-1-2 or 3-4-1-2. Economically it makes sense; that sort of creator is precisely the type of player to attract the highest transfer fees, so Argentina has become a great exporter of 10s, to be transformed into something more modern abroad. The corollary of the focus on the 10 is a focus on el 5, the holding midfielder whose duty is to stop the 10. Batista's line up in his first two matches effectively used three 5s and two 10s, but looking at his squad it became apparent how limited his options were. Argentina produces very few linking or shuttling midfielders (or full-backs, centre-backs or goalkeepers for that matter).

The best compromise he could come up with to use Angel Di María, more usually a winger, as an advanced midfielder, with Fernando Gago, who began life as a 10 at Boca Juniors before retreating to become a 5, as a more creative option alongside Javier Mascherano. Against Costa Rica, the ploy worked. With Gago to Mascherano's right and slightly advanced, and Di María more advanced to the left, the midfield had far better balance, generating short-passing options that obviated the need for the overly vertical approach. Messi began not as a false nine, but on the right, drifting in, with Sergio Agüero preferred to the misfiring Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuaín replacing Tevéz. The result was a much-improved performance and a 3-0 win. Di María's strike, the third, came after a protracted period of possession and suggested just what this Argentina might be capable of. But it was only against Costa Rica.

Batista, incredibly, had said before the tournament he wanted his Argentina to play like Barcelona, with Messi as a false nine. The idea that a style that has been formed over decades, inculcated into generations of youth players until one emerged capable of playing the epoch-defining game of the modern side, could somehow be replicated in a fortnight with vastly different players was a significant pointer to Batista's tactical limitations, and he ended up being out-coached in three of the four games. How, after all, could Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega be expected to play like Xavi and Andrès Iniesta? It only makes sense for Messi to drop deep if the midfielders who then go beyond him have the technical quality to take advantage of any space that might be created by the movement. 

Messi wasn't the only one having difficulties outside the Barcelona machine. Dani Alves, also, was made to look so ordinary by Paraguay's Marcelo Estigarribia in the second game that he was dropped for Maicon. At Barca, he is encouraged to push forward at will, secure in the knowledge that Sergio Busquets falls back from a central midfield position to become almost a third centre-back, with the right-sided centre-back shuffling across to cover. With Brazil that simply didn't happen, Lucio, who looked lumbering throughout, never seeming comfortable with the move right to protect Alves. Only a last-minute equaliser from Fred salvaged a 2-2 draw for Brazil from that game and, while the attack at least fired against Ecuador, Pato and the largely disappointing Neymar both scoring twice, a 4-2 win only served to highlight Brazil's defensive worries.

Uruguay, the forgotten seed, also started slowly. They drew 1-1 with Peru, conceding as the centre-backs Diego Lugano and Mauricio Victorino were caught far too high up the pitch, leaving them vulnerable to a simple ball over the top. Paolo Guerrero ran on to score. They then drew 1-1 with Chile, an enthralling game in which Jorge Valdivia, having come on as a second-half substitute, threatened to destroy them, revelling in the space between the midfield and a back four that now sat too deep. By the third game, against Mexico, on a bog in La Plata, though, Tabárez had solved the problem, and Uruguay's win was far more emphatic than a 1-0 scoreline might suggest.

Sergio Markarian didn't set out to be a football coach. When he decided, aged 18, that he wouldn't make it as a player, he got a job with a fuel distribution company, rising to be general manager. When he was 30, though, he watched Uruguay be humiliated by Holland in the 1974 World Cup, and decided he had to become a coach so his country would never again suffer in the same way. He started out at Bella Vista and in 1983 moved to Paraguay. He won two league championships there with Olimpia, but it was his work with the national team ahead of the 1992 Olympic Games that made him probably the single most important coach in Paraguayan history. He instilled the classic Uruguayan virtues of toughness, defensive resilience and, vitally, garra — a concept that literally means 'claw' but incorporates mental strength, courage and streetwiseness. That side included Carlos Gamarra, Celso Ayala, Jose Luis Chilavert, Francisco Arce and José Cardozo, players who went on to form the core of the team that would make Paraguay regular World Cup qualifiers; they've been in the finals of each of the last four World Cups, having made it to just one of the previous nine. Markarian also led Paraguay through the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup before being absurdly sacked for losing the last two matches — after qualification had been secured.

Markarian has also won two Paraguayan titles with Libertad, and the Chilean title with Universidad de Chile, but his more striking successes since the Barcelona Olympics have come in Peru, where he won league titles with Universitad de Deportes and Sporting Cristal, whom he led to the Copa Libertadores final in 1997. He took over the national team following a miserable qualifying campaign for the last World Cup, in which they finished bottom having lost all nine away games. Injuries to Jefferson Farfán and Claudio Pizarro robbed him of two of his most recognised names but, although Markarian spoke of never having had luck like it, the injuries may have done him a favour. Losing celebrated forwards meant he could pack the side with hard-working midfielders: a lopsided 4-4-1-1 in which Juan Vargas was used essentially as a free man cutting in from the left, as Guerrero excelled in the lone striking role.

Having secured the draw against Uruguay, Peru effectively made sure of their place in the last eight with a 1-0 win over Mexico, yet another of the tournament's comfortable victories that wasn't reflected in the scoreline, an odd feature that helps explain the low goals-per-game ratio. Such things are hard to quantify but, while this was certainly a tournament where defences dominated, it was also a tournament in which numerous goalkeepers excelled, the woodwork took a pounding and several relatively simple chances were missed: it wasn't a festival of attacking football, but neither was this Copa quite as negative a goals-per-game ratio of 2.08 might suggest.

Bolivia seemed to have done the hard work by drawing with Argentina in the opening game with a performance of real doggedness and organisation; but then, they'd done that in past Copas. This was the fourth time in the past five tournaments 'that Bolivia had been offered up in the opening game, almost as a sacrifice to get the hosts off to a positive start. On each occasion they've drawn, and each occasion they then failed to win a game and were eliminated at the group stage.

This time should have been different, if only because they had the advantage of playing their second game in Jujuy, in the foothills of the Andes. It is home to thousands of Bolivian immigrants, and thousands more poured over the border for the match against Costa Rica. The city that night was a festival of Bolivianness. The national dress — bowler hats, ponchos, pollera skirts — was as common as the green national shirt, and the pavements were slick with the remnants of chewed coca leaves. This was near enough a home game, but perhaps that advantage led to complacency. The urgency, the focus, of the opening fixture were gone and Bolivia struggled to maintain their defensive shape when there was an onus on them also to attack. They made it to the interval level after a patchy first half, but were undone in the second by the excellence of Joel Campbell, switched from centre-forward to the left flank. Costa Rica won 2-0 and missed a penalty as Bolivia lost their discipline and had two men sent off. 

Bolivia's 2-0 defeat to Colombia in their final group game, back in the lowlands of Córdoba, was as comprehensive as it was predictable. Bolivia's coach, Gustavo Quinteros, was the first to use the excuse that this tournament had been about preparation for the World Cup qualifiers, which begin in October. "We didn't have much time to work together, so what we were trying to do was find a settled squad with a view to the qualifying phase," he said. "And I think we managed to do that. When it comes to our first qualifier, I expect 80 per cent of the players who were in Argentina to form the core of the squad." The advantage they have of playing home games at altitude in La Paz means that, ordinary as they were, they still have an outside chance of making it to Brazil.

At least Bolivia went home with two positive memories: the festival atmosphere in Jujuy and the minutes after Edivaldo Rojas had put them ahead in the opening game when it seemed that Argentina would never equalise and they might win their first Copa match since hosting the tournament in 1997. Ecuador didn't even have that. They lost Antonio Valencia to injury shortly before the competition began and seemed never to believe they could make any sort of impression after that. Although Cristian Benítez was denied a brilliant goal after a weaving dribble against Paraguay only when the goalkeeper Justo Villar inadvertently deflected the ball with his trailing leg, and Felipe Caicedo scored twice against Brazil, they were a weirdly alienated front two, linking only infrequently with the midfield. Their opening draw against Paraguay was the result of an inspired performance from their goalkeeper Marcelo Elizaga, they were well-beaten by Venezuela and that they scored two equalisers in the 4-2 defeat to Brazil was almost entirely down to the defensive flaws of the defending champions. Reinaldo Rueda admitted that his side had "failed" and had been "careless". They're not quite back to the minnow status of two decades ago, but they have not been beyond the group stage of the Copa since 1997 and, without Valencia, look very ordinary. 

The two Concacaf representatives, Mexico and Costa Rica, both underwhelmed, but then that was always likely. The invitees occupy a strange position at the Copa, there largely to make up the numbers up, and there seems always to be a general sigh of relief when they go home; the last thing anybody in South America wants is for a team from outside the continent to win their tournament. Having played in the Gold Cup, which ended only six days before the Copa began, they sent Under-23 sides, bolstered by five overage players. Mexico were weakened further, first by the suspension of five players from the Gold Cup squad after they tested positive for clembutoral (although the Mexican federation reported that the B sample for each was negative), and then by a prostitution scandal on the eve of the tournament that led to eight players being sent home. Had Japan competed — they withdrew following the earthquake and were replaced by Costa Rica — they would have been serious challengers. 

Mexico lost all three games and rarely looked like doing anything else. Costa Rica at least played with energy and gave the impression they were happy to be in the tournament. That eagerness probably contributed to the dismissal of Randall Brenes for a wild tackle in their opening game, against Colombia, and that in turn rather scuppered Costa Rica's tournament. They lost that match 1-0 and although they then beat Bolivia, an emphatic 3-0 defeat to Argentina put them out of the tournament, eliminated as a best third-place team by Paraguay's superior goal-difference. That their coach Ricardo La Volpe felt the need to ban his players from posing for photographs with Argentina's probably gives the clearest indication of their approach to the tournament.

The best parrillas in Mendoza, everybody says, are on Avenida Sarmiento. Chile's fans obviously got the message: the street was awash with red shirts, sitting in restaurants, queuing outside them. This was one of the strengths of this Copa; although the semi-final in Mendoza was sparsely attended, the vast majority of games were near sell-outs with far more travelling support than there has been in the past. That is indicative of the increasing wealth of the continent, but also of the tournament's maturity. That may seem an odd thing to say for a competition in its 43rd edition, but two factors have combined over the past decade to give it greater status. For one thing, the switch to holding it every four years has led to countries taking it more seriously: the best players are here, whereas in the past a lot of stars would give the tournament a miss. But also the smaller nations are growing stronger, something Tim Vickery believes is a consequence of the decision to determine World Cup qualification on a league basis, with all 10 Conmebol sides playing each other home and away, something that guarantees a regular income for every federation and has allowed them to invest in infrastructure and long-term planning. 

The away fans were also a vindication of the decision to take the tournament around the regions. Going to Jujuy ensured Bolivians; hosting games in Mendoza and San Juan led to thousands of Chileans pouring east over the Andes. It's only 112 miles from Santiago to Mendoza and fans came in such numbers that there were six-hour delays at the border. "They're like home games," said the Chile forward Humberto Suazo. "And it gives us great motivation to play in a stadium full of our fans."

It was the Chileans who produced the best atmosphere, with red flares and smoke bombs in the stands at each of their games, and it was they who produced the best football of the group stage, arguably of the tournament. Marcelo Bielsa has gone, standing down as coach following the Chilean federation's presidential elections last November, but the 3-3-1-3 shape and the attacking zeal he instilled remains under his replacement, the Argentinian Claudio Borghi, even if the pressing isn't quite as intense as it was. 

They struggled with injuries to their central creators, though, with Matías Fernández playing only the opening game and Jorge Valdivia never fully fit. When Jean Beausejour, such an important figure in the way he linked midfield and forward lines on the left, was sent off in the group game against Peru —a crazy red card in a game of little consequence for either side — it left Chile severely handicapped for their quarter-final against Venezuela. What let them down, though, was their defending at set-pieces. Oswaldo Vizcarrondo headed Venezuela in front from Juan Arango's right-wing-free-kick just before half time and, although Chile equalised amid a barrage of second-half pressure in which Suazo and Valdivia both hit the woodwork, another free-kick from a similar position led to the goalkeeper Claudio Bravo spilling the ball for Gabriel Cichero to poke in a winner.

That night in San Juan, in a pure black sky — the clearness contributing to the severe cold — hung a huge, white, full moon. It seemed the perfect symbol for a weekend of lunacy in which each of the four quarter-finals had been won by the underdogs, even though they'd been outplayed in each game. The long-ball theorist Charles Reep spoke a lot of nonsense and his use of statistics was at times questionable, but one thing he did get right was that international tournaments are too short to be reliable guides to anything. One bad performance, one streak of misfortune, can be enough to break even the best sides. That weekend, in each of the four games, the better team lost.

The biggest of those shocks came in La Plata. Even after the fortuitous 2-2 draw in the group game against Paraguay, most expected Brazil to prevail. Paraguay bunkered in. They'd actually been relatively progressive in the group stage, as their coach Gerardo Martino —a former Bielsa player — tried to encourage them to play a high line. As injuries hit their attacking options, though, Paraguay's style became increasingly defensive, with Victor Caceres coming in for the much more creative Néstor Ortigoza at the back of the midfield. Brazil had chances, but found Villar in superb form and became increasingly vertical as the game went on.

That had been their problem whenever they'd played poorly; the 4-2-1-3 shape leaving Ganso isolated as the lone creator. When Brazil were at their best, in the first half of the group game against Paraguay, they'd had Jadson to his right in a 4-2-2-2, drawing defensive fire and giving him support and a square passing option. Quite why Jadson lasted only 45 minutes before being discarded is a mystery; the return of Robinho in a much higher right-sided role simply reinforced the problem. Mano Menezes, the Brazil coach, insisted this tournament was about preparation for 2014, an argument that, from him, at least makes a certain sense (with the reservation that three years in an awful long time in football) given that they have no qualifiers to play and thus no competitive football until the Confederations Cup in 2013. If Ganso learnt that the space and protection from referees he is afforded in Brazilian football don't exist at international level and if it was hammered home that he needs creative support, then the sacrifice of not playing a full-strength team may have been worth it. As it was, though, Brazil capitulated mentally, losing patience as they failed to break Paraguay down, and then missing all four penalties they took in the shoot-out.

Peru's victory over Colombia, similarly, followed a game in which they had been outplayed for a significant period of the second half, during which spell Radamel Falcao missed a penalty and Dayro Moreno struck the post. When the Colombia goalkeeper Luis Martínez fumbled a cross in extra-time, William Chiroque rattled in a superb finish form the edge of the box, and superb hold-up play from Guerrero set up Vargas for another emphatic finish to settle the game.

The quarter-final that drew the most attention, though, was the one in Santa Fe between the hosts and Uruguay, both of them winners of the Copa América on 14 occasions. For 45 minutes, Argentina looked good. They struggled when facing set-plays, from the first of which Diego Pérez stabbed Uruguay into the lead, but their passing was as fluid and confident as it had been against Costa Rica. The question had been whether Argentina could reproduce that form against serious opposition and when Higuaín headed in Messi's cross to equalise, the answer seemed clear.

But then Pérez was sent off for a second yellow card. Argentina, perhaps, relaxed and Tabárez showed his genius: he moved Alvaro Pereira infield from the left to replace Pérez in the centre. That left the flank free, but with Messi persisting in cutting in, it didn't matter. Martin Caceres, the left-back, had only to deal with Argentina's right-back, Pablo Zabaleta, which he did comfortably. In goal, Fernando Muslera was inspired. As Argentina failed to find the winner, they grew frustrated, their play became more vertical, and the fouls and yellow cards mounted up. Javier Mascherano was unlucky in that his second yellow was for a nothing foul, but a red had been coming for somebody. As so often, it was the team who had weathered the storm, Uruguay, who won the shoot-out,' then pick up again from 'Muslera saving from Tevéz, whose kick was by some way the worst of the set. Messi, who had withstood tremendous pressure and an inordinate wait before converting his kick, was left lying face down on the grass, the picture of abjection. Nobody, surely, now believes that he doesn't care for his country.

Perhaps Uruguay needed that validation. With Argentina and Brazil out, they became overwhelming favourites, the defensive issues solved and the shape of the midfield seemingly benefitting after the Napoli forward Edinson Cavani, horribly out of sorts early on, suffered an injury that kept him out till the final. In the semi-final, against Peru, Tabárez faced Markarian for the second time in the tournament. This time, instead of a 4-3-3, he opted for a 3-5-1-1, and so simultaneously guarded against the sort of goal his side had conceded in the group meeting, and allowed Lugano to drift to his right to pick up Guerrero, safe in the knowledge there were still two players packing the middle. Two goals from Luis Suárez ensured a straightforward 2-0 win.

Paraguay's semi-final against Venezuela was nothing like as simple. Without a recognised left-back, Martino opted for the right-back Ivan Piris on the left and protected him by leaving out Estigarribia and instead deploying Cristian Riveros on the left as Jonathan Santana came into the middle. The result was a desperate game in which Vizcarrondo's header against the bar was pretty much the only thing of note in normal time. Venezuela hit the woodwork twice more in extra-time and Santana was sent off, but Paraguay held out and won on penalties, reaching the final without winning a single game. That earned them scorn, but their progress wasn't quite as fortunate as some suggested: they'd been lucky in the two knockout rounds, but they'd been unlucky in each of the three group games.

Their luck ran out in the final. Exhausted and depleted by injuries, they were reliant on Ortigoza for creativity, but he needs the tempo to be slow. Tabárez was never likely to be sympathetic. He set Egidio Arévalo Ríos to hound Ortigoza and had his side start at a phenomenal tempo. It was a gamble, for had Paraguay survived, his side might have blown themselves out. They didn't. Villar had already made two excellent saves and Ortigoza had got away with a handball on the line when Suárez, showing the anticipation, touch and courage that makes him such an awkward striker to play against, gathered Maxi Pereira's deflected cross and sent a deflected finish scooting past Villar.

Uruguay dropped off, gathered their breath, and came again, Arévalo Ríos won possession and laid in Forlán to sweep in his first of the tournament, a lovely and deserved goal from the player Uruguay fans most wanted to see score. His second, to make it 3-0 late on, was even better, a rapid break ending with Suárez cushioning Cavani's cross into Forlán's path for a calm, neat finish. It took him to 31 goals for his country, matching Hector Scarone's record, and ensured he followed his father and grandfather in lifting the Copa América.

A few moments earlier, Tabárez had brought on Diego Godín, who had missed the early games with a virus — although whether he would have supplanted Sebastián Coates, a remarkably mature 20 year old, is debatable — and so ensured that every outfielder in his squad had at least some minutes on the pitch, a small but classy and inclusive gesture. 

At the same time, though, Tabárez has been keen to make clear his side "is not a club of friends". On the wall of his Montevideo home he has inscribed a motto from Che Guevara: "You must toughen yourself without losing tenderness." Both in his football and his leadership Tabárez seems to have got the balance just right. "You mustn't demonise the word defence," he said. "When you plan a match, you must limit the potential of the opponent. The tougher the opponent the more you have to work on that. When a coach wants to be popular, he says he is an attacking coach. When a coach says he is defensive, it is assumed something is lacking. But we have good attackers and we insist on the intelligence of players knowing when to attack and when to defend. This is a virtue. It is not a crime to be strong in defence." 

Tabárez is an outstanding tactician, but he also manages people and of course the one feeds off the other, for players are far more likely to make sacrifices and follow instructions if they have faith in their manager and are committed to the collective. And this was a victory for the collective. Muslera, betraying none of the nerves that have hampered him in the past, had his day of glory against Argentina. Lugano and Coates, from the Mexico match onwards, were all but faultless, robust and committed (as Abreu commented, seeing Lugano, the arch-jostler, collect the Fair Play Award on behalf of Uruguay "was like seeing Bin Laden with the Nobel Peace Prize"). Caceres and Maxi Pereira were energetic and dogged at full-back. Pérez snapped and snarled in midfield, while Arévalo Ríos did much the same and passed with clinical economy. Alvaro Gonzales filled in for Cavani on the right, unspectacular but efficient. Alvaro Pereria, whether at wing-back or in midfield was industrious and discriminating in his use of the ball. Forlán's vision and movement were as good as ever and it's hard to imagine there are many strikers more annoying than Suárez to play against. 

But this was really about Tabárez. He said after leaving the Uruguay national team for the first time after the 1990 World Cup that he had unfinished business. This time, whatever happens in World Cup qualifying, he surely won't have any regrets.