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Why the Copa America is played on small fields – and what it means

Something isn’t quite right.

It feels like there is a lack of space and that players are mainly on top of each other in large areas.

As your eyes wander around the pitch, you notice how the edge of the penalty area and the touchline seem unusually close. That’s because they Are unusually close.

The Copa America is played on the smallest dimensions allowed for an international match: 100 metres long and 64 metres wide (109 by 70 yards).

Or, to put it another way, a prestigious tournament involving some of the world’s biggest footballing nations takes place on pitches similar to the size that England’s under-13 academy players regularly use to help them the transition from 9-a- to 11-a-side football for the first time: moving the sidelines forward and shortening their length to reduce physical strain. The total amount of space lost is approximately equal to the size of a penalty area.

That’s all well and good for children, but it’s not normal for top international footballers.

“I would like to draw attention to the size of the pitches,” said Dorival Junior, the Brazilian manager, ahead of Monday night’s goalless draw against Costa Rica. “It will mean that the matches will be more closely contested. A team defending its own penalty area can counter-attack and reach the attacking half much faster. That’s worth thinking about.

“We talked about it a lot during training – how it will make it easy to get ahead quickly, but also how it will be more difficult to find a way past a (deep) defense. The distance between where you regain possession of the ball and the opponent’s goal is a lot shorter than in matches in our country.”

Danilo, the Brazil captain, sounded like a man who had just had the rug – or perhaps that should be the grass – pulled from under his feet after inspecting the playing field at Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the pitch, which allowed us to play a technical match,” said the Juventus full-back. “But with these dimensions you can expect battles, war and a lot of physical challenges.”

Danilo


Danilo (left) said the pitches would make the matches very physical (Mark Leech/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Brazil failed to beat Costa Rica due to the size of the field, but there is no doubt that this was a factor in the match – something Costa Rica coach Gustavo Alfaro acknowledged afterwards – and that this will have a significant impact have at this tournament. Even those who emerged victorious in their opening match accepted that reality.

“The measurements are extremely narrow,” Nestor Lorenzo, the Colombian manager, said on Monday after their 2-1 win over Paraguay. “One hundred (meters) by 63 (sic), right? Moreover, you regularly see throw-ins that reach the six-yard box – even I, without any strength, could get the ball there. Almost every player is used to playing on a much wider field. Wider and longer too. And that almost always helps the team that puts pressure.”

If you’re wondering why this happened, the answer is quite simple.

CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body and the tournament’s organizer, wanted each pitch to be the same size, which makes perfect sense. One team doesn’t get an advantage just by playing in a certain stadium. But that becomes a bit of a problem when NFL stadiums are used to host football games (as is the case with 11 of the 14 Copa America venues); specifically, NFL stadiums where there is limited space to increase the playing surface (for context, each NFL field is 370 feet long but only 150 feet wide).

The lack of room to move in some places (corners, shown below from the Peru-Chile match, can be an interesting experience for anyone trying to take an outswinger) has been most evident at SoFi Stadium in California, MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and AT&T Stadium in Dallas. But everyone else has had to abide by the restrictions, even if it means cutting and shrinking a perfectly sized field — Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas, where the lines used for MLS matches were clearly visible during Tuesday’s match between Peru and Canada, is an example of this.

In summary, it is a one-size-fits-all approach at the Copa America 2024 – and that size is small.

“All fields have natural grass (we have converted the synthetic surfaces in six stadiums to natural grass) and each field is 100 x 64 meters,” a CONMEBOL spokesperson said. The Athletics.

It will be a different story when the men’s World Cup comes to the US, Mexico and Canada in two years. All venues will have to comply with world governing body FIFA’s strict rules on pitch size: have a playing surface of 105 x 68 meters (the same as the Premier League requires) and a significant run-off area. At some stadiums this means removing seats and major construction work. In fact, it has already started at the MetLife Stadium, at a cost of $16 million (£12.7 million at today’s rate).

“Early on in this process, we learned that MetLife Stadium, like many other NFL stadiums, was built a little more like an oval, and that the football field, or field, needed to be a little more rectangular,” says Lauren Nathan. -LaRusso, co-host city manager and general counsel of the New York New Jersey Host Committee, explained this a fortnight ago. “So in the corners of our stadium we had to widen them. That work started this year and we have done one side of the stadium and next year we will do the next side.

Problem solved for the World Cup, so. But what about now?

Copa America


The long and short of it, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that the coaches and players at the Copa America have to get on with it and adapt.

The dimensions of the penalty area cannot change. Indeed, you don’t have to be a mathematician to calculate that the area where proportionately the most space has been lost is on the flanks (whether that realization will make Vinicius Junior feel better or worse after his disappointing performance against Costa Rica is unclear).

“If we look at the (Costa Rica) marking, it was very fast and that is normal because this is a smaller field, vertically and horizontally, and that affects the defense and makes the attack more difficult,” said Dorival Junior after the Brazil match. opening game. “It (the field size) makes it easier to defend and difficult to attack, so double marking happens more easily – when Vini had the ball he had two markers with him and a third one approaching. Raphinha suffered the same.”

The general consensus is that defensive teams, or as Lorenzo pointed out, teams that like to press, will benefit most from a smaller playing field. Likewise, it seems quite clear that the lack of width is not conducive to playing expansive football and all that entails.

In Alex Bellos’s excellent book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, the late, great Socrates expressed concern more than twenty years ago about the way physical attributes were dominating the modern game and taking away much of its beauty. “The spaces between players are relatively smaller. This causes a lot more physical contact and makes it a lot harder for the player to create moves. As a result, football has become uglier,” he said.

Socrates, an erudite man who thought deeply about the game, had a solution: keep the size of the field the same and reduce the number of teams to nine against nine. Whatever you think of the former Brazil international’s proposal, it is difficult to see how eleven against eleven on a smaller playing field increases the entertainment value.

Some players at the Copa America seem reluctant to make a song and dance out of it. “I haven’t really thought about it until now. It didn’t seem too tight,” USMNT midfielder Gio Reyna said when asked The Athletics.

Weston McKennie, Reyna’s teammate, agreed. “Obviously you might have people who care more, pay more attention to it, but it’s not something I’m concerned about.”

The danger with something like this, of course, is that you start blaming the smaller pitch for everything that goes wrong and blaming players for poor play when they don’t deserve it. That said, there were a few curious moments in the first half of the Brazil-Costa Rica match.

With just under seven minutes gone, Raphinha took a corner kick that wasn’t so much hit as knocked out of the park – the ball landing well beyond the six-yard box on the other side of the goal (clips 1 and 2 below). At that point he had already tried switching the game to Rodrygo, which was so quirky that it felt like the equivalent of using a driver on a short par three (clips 3 and 4). The ball bounced once and flew out the other side for a throw-in.

In between, Costa Rica’s Juan Pablo Vargas attempted to hit a routine free kick to the right, with fullback Haxzel Quiros turning and running back before the assistant referee even had a chance to raise his flag for a Brazilian throw. Then there was the goal kick that Costa Rica goalkeeper Patrick Sequeira smashed straight into the feet of… the Brazilian coach (what a wonderful display of control from the 62-year-old, by the way).

You get the feeling that some coaches are surprised by all this and had little prior knowledge. Alfaro, Costa Rica’s highly experienced and garrulous coach, told a story after the match against Brazil about how he asked the team’s bus driver to delay his departure from the stadium after his pre-match press conference on Sunday because he had just read about the the pitch is so small.

“I wanted to take a look at the turf to see its condition and dimensions and I noticed there was little space between the box and the wings,” Alfaro said. “That’s very important when you try to spread your game, like Brazil does. So defensively for a line of five (like Costa Rica had at the back against Brazil), those spaces are shorter.”

The examples in the excerpt below, all from the first half of the Brazil-Costa Rica match, illustrate Alfaro’s point.

Of course, there was a way to avoid all this: play the matches in Major League Soccer stadiums, where lack of space would never have been an issue (some MLS fields are huge – 400 feet long and 230 feet wide).

However, that would lead to severely limited capacity and, heaven forbid, lower revenues. Furthermore, the Copa America acts as a trial run for the World Cup venues to iron out any off-field issues.

“It’s a complicated subject,” added Brazilian forward Rodrygo. “We have certainly noticed it and we are trying to get used to it as quickly as possible during training. In the friendly match against the USA (before the Copa America) there was not much space. I like finding gaps between the lines, but there was no room; the opposing players were always close. It’s hard, but we get used to it. We will find the right way to deal with it.”

Other contributors: Jack Lang, Melanie Anzidei, Pablo Maurer, Felipe Cardenas

(Top photo: Mark Leech/Offside/Offside via Getty Images. Image: John Bradford)