In five years, Uruguay have gone from World Cup qualifier flops to one of the world's best sides. And, given their spirit and talent, the future looks brighter than it has for 50 years
This has been a tournament that has persistently defied expectations, but not in the final. Uruguay were comfortable winners over Paraguay, collecting a 15th Copa América title and so, on Argentinian soil, moving past Argentina to become the most successful team in the tournament's history.
In a tournament that has been dominated by coaches, the best tactician of them all, Oscar Washington Tabárez, came out triumphant. When, in 2006, Tabárez took charge of La Celeste for the second time, they had just failed to qualify for the World Cup.
In the five years since, he has taken them to a Copa América semi-final, a World Cup semi-final and now to this triumph. One of his key achievements has been to reconcile Uruguay to its glorious history; to persuade a country with a population of 3.5m that it should not expect to replicate the Olympic golds and World Cup victories of the first half of the last century; in the future, it may be this golden age that Uruguayan coaches tell their public is an impossible dream.
Paraguay never looked like denying Uruguay. For them this has been a strange tournament. They should have won their first three games but drew them all; they should have lost their last two but drew them as well. Exhausted by successive periods of extra time, depleted by injuries and suspensions and with their coach, Gerardo Martino, serving a touchline ban, they were blown away by an early Uruguayan surge.
First Luis Suárez – his movement, intelligence and general ability to irritate defenders such an important part of Uruguay's game – battled his way through to force a brave save from Justo Villar at his near post. Then, from the resulting corner, Diego Lugano's header was parried by Villar and Sebastián Coates's follow-up was blocked by the hand of Néstor Ortigoza.
The opener came, though, after 13 minutes, as Suárez seized on Maxi Pereira's deflected cross, turned inside Darío Verón and sent his shot scooting, via a slight deflection, just inside Villar's right-hand post.
From then on, it was simply a matter of keeping control. Paraguay, robbed of Roque Santa Cruz and Lucas Barrios by injury – although the latter did make a late substitute appearance before clutching his hamstring and going off again – lacked creativity. Nelson Haedo Valdez is a willing runner but lacks guile and, although he poked one shot over from Enrique Vera's diagonal cross, it never seemed that they'd be able to impose themselves. The 4-5-1 was – largely of necessity, although Marcelo Estigarribia would have offered a more attacking option on the left – set up to contain; Tabárez gambled on forcing the early pace, scoring the early goal, and effectively neutering Martino's tactics before the game had begun.
There was a lull and then, three minutes before the break, at last it came, not just the goal that effectively settled the final, but one seemingly all of Uruguay had been waiting for: Diego Forlán's first of the tournament. He had come into the tournament off a poor season at Atlético Madrid, where he had fallen out with the coach, Quique Sánchez Flores. There were those who wondered whether, at 32, he was on the wane. He had become a tabloid staple after the break-up of his relationship with his fiancee, the Argentinian model Zaira Nara.
He has answered the doubters emphatically. His passing, movement and vision have been as good as ever. He once resented the deeper role he was asked to occupy for his country, but has since come to revel in it and in this tournament, as at the World Cup, he has provided the vital link between midfield and attack. He has twice won the Pichichi, twice won the European Golden Shoe, but he has shown for his country that he is far more than just a finisher.
Strangely, in this tournament it has been his finishing that has been lacking. He has missed chance after chance. Even in the final, he squandered opportunities. Set through after a rapid turn and release from Alvaro González, he struck his shot firm and low into the body of Villar. His mishit a volley from a promising position into the ground so it looped kindly into the goalkeeper's hands. Every time he jogged over to take a corner, the Uruguay fans in the popular applauded him wildly. The desire for Forlán – who got by far the loudest roar as the Uruguayan team was read out before the game – to score was palpable.
And finally, he did. A simple move from right to left; Egidio Arévalo Rios pushed the ball on to Forlán. He had time, he had space and the ball was weighted perfectly into his stride. A first-time shot with the left foot, and Villar was left rooted: 2-0, the game secured before half-time.
Néstor Muslera tipped a Valdez volley on to the bar, but the second half was merely a prelude to the coronation. Forlán added a wonderful third, Suárez cushioning Edinson Cavani's cross into his path with a neat header. It made him the nation's joint top scorer with Héctor Scarone, and ensured – not that there was much doubt by that stage – that he would follow his father, Pablo Forlán, and his grandfather, Juan Carlos Corazo, in winning the tournament.
In some ways, though, the most significant moment of the second half had come a minute before Forlán's goal, when Tabárez brought on Diego Godín who had been suffering with a virus. It might not seem like much, but it meant that every outfield player in the squad had played some minutes in the tournament. Tabárez is a great tactician, but he also understands people. Forlán has said that he thought the notion of team spirit was a myth until Tabárez took over the Uruguay squad; in giving Godín his four minutes on the pitch, he symbolically included him in the triumph, helping foster yet further Uruguay's tremendous togetherness.
As sides based on individuals – notably Argentina and Brazil – have faltered, Uruguay were deserved winners and, after an edgy start, have been by some way the best team. Against Peru their back four pushed too high; against Chile they struggled to get the space between defence and midfield regulated; thereafter they haven't conceded a goal. The centre-backs Coates and Lugano have both been exceptional, Rios is a bright and industrious holder and Alvaro Pereira's energy and crossing on the left have been exemplary, but it is invidious to pick out individuals in a team that is so demonstrably a collective.
With Uruguay reaching the final of the Under-17 World Cup earlier in the month, and among the favourites for the Under-20s, which starts in Colombia at the end of next week, and having ousted Argentina as one of South America's two representatives at next year's Olympics, Uruguayan football looks as healthy as it has in half a century. At the heart of it all, limping and smiling his slightly crooked smile, eyes flickering with wry intelligence, is Tabárez, who in five years has enacted the most extraordinary of renaissances. Forget Suárez, forget Tomás Rincón, forget Villar; particularly forget Neymar and Lionel Messi; the man of the tournament has been the former schoolteacher from Montevideo.
Team of the tournament (3-4-2-1): Justo Villar (PAR); Darío Verón (PAR), Diego Lugano (URU), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (VEN); Maicon (BRA), Carlos Sánchez (COL), Tomás Rincón (VEN), Alvaro Pereira (URU); Alexis Sánchez (CHL), Luis Suárez (URU); Paolo Guerrero (PER)