Fear and lunging in Las Vegas: How Uruguay v Brazil became this Copa America's dirtiest match

​​Sometimes it happens.

High stakes, growing tension, a sheer desperation not to lose — the biggest games can light a fire within compulsive competitors that catches too quickly, spreads across the pitch, and burns any sense of spectacle to the ground. 

Uruguay’s Copa America quarterfinal clash with Brazil fell foul to that intensity: an ugly collision of arms, legs and bodies constantly interrupted by the referee’s whistle. By the time Dario Herrera signalled for the end, it felt as if the contest had barely been given the chance to begin.

But it was not the referee’s fault. He could have easily intervened more often than the 41 times he did. Shoulder barges and cynical fouls chopped the rhythm of the game into so many pieces that it finished with more skirmishes than it did shots.

This is how a good-looking game descended into disrepute.

Just 156 seconds in, and Facundo Pellistri is writhing around on the floor in pain, clutching his chest. No foul.

A minute later, Endrick is down, barged away from the ball by Ronald Araujo. Nothing doing, again.

The 17-year-old Brazil forward exacts instant revenge, charging into the Uruguay centre-back as he clears the ball. Araujo then seeks out Endrick as the ball goes out of play and shoves him to the ground. All of it — the initial challenge, the payback, and the retaliation — are ignored by the referee.

It was an opening exchange that set the tone: this hot-headed encounter would be allowed to breathe. Of the five run-ins in the opening five minutes, only one was deemed to have crossed the line.

Uruguay, Brazil

Uruguay and Brazil’s players clash at Allegiant Stadium (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

As individual battles turned tetchier, the aggressive game plan of Marcelo Bielsa’s Uruguay began to leave its mark on the mass brawl.

Famed for his front-footed ideas, the 68-year-old Bielsa instructs his teams to mark man-to-man, looking to apply maximum pressure to win the ball close to goal. Naturally, it’s an approach that sees players tearing across the pitch, doing everything they can to make possession as uncomfortable as possible for their opponents.

No team in the competition have regained the ball more often in the attacking third (23) than Uruguay, nor have any side committed more fouls in that same area of the pitch (also 23). Uruguay’s second offence of this game came 10 seconds after Brazil had taken a goal kick. Nicolas de la Cruz chased Eder Militao into his own corner flag and crunched into the challenge just after the ball had gone.

Given Brazil’s struggles in build-up against Colombia last week, it is no surprise that Bielsa threw his troops forward in goal-kick situations. Too many times on the night, however, Uruguay were rash in those moments, the graphic below indicating that nine of their 26 fouls were committed in that final third.

Brazil Uruguay fouls

Elsewhere, Endrick continued to feel the full force of Uruguay’s physicality — here was a group of players clearly targeting the teenager on his first-ever international start.

Scampering away on the break, he was first scythed down by future Real Madrid team-mate Federico Valverde, who somehow avoided the referee’s attention, before he was shoulder-charged to the ground by Araujo — again — away from the ball.

It was all starting to get personal.

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Cast your eyes back up the foul graphic and you’ll notice another trend to Uruguay’s trail of fouls: the right-hand side. It’s where Nahitan Nandez, the man eventually sent off for a reckless studs-up challenge on Rodrygo in the second half, does most of his dirty work.

Nominally a central midfielder, the 28-year-old has been one of La Celeste’s standout performers throughout this competition, his tireless tacking and defensive commitment helping to bolt the door shut. His 14 tackles only trail Manuel Ugarte in the Uruguay squad, but his 12 fouls leave him short of only Bruno Guimaraes in the entire competition.

Nandez is intense, famously throwing himself to the ground in the closing moments of their 1-0 win against the United States last week, headbutting a team-mate’s shin in an attempt to nudge the ball away.

nahitan nandez defensive convex touchmap 1

His challenge 20 minutes from time was the peak of his brute force, the midfielder aggressively following Rodrygo into the middle of the pitch and jumping in from behind after he had been spun.

The referee’s initial yellow card was upgraded to a red and the game had the expulsion that it probably deserved.

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Though responsible for just a third of the 41 fouls, Brazil played their part in a historically hostile game.

Behind De la Cruz who made six fouls Brazil midfielder Joao Gomes made five, including a cynical trip on Pellistri after Brazil lost the ball under the Uruguayan press. He also wrestled De La Cruz to the ground before eventually receiving his yellow card for a spectacularly mistimed lunge.

Tellingly, all of those fouls came quickly after his team had lost possession. With Uruguay so relentless in nicking the ball, it left Brazil’s foul-heavy midfield trio needing to recover to stop the counter-attacks. Gomes here, took one for the team as he chopped down Nandez.

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In the end, one team’s man-for-man aggression combined with another’s panic on the ball and created the perfect storm of shoves, trips and slips.

The game notched up four more fouls than Chile’s battle with Peru the previous record-holder in this summer’s competition with 37 fouls — to bring the tournament average up to 26.5 per game, four more per match than the European Championships.

It should also be said that Uruguay eventually won, hauling themselves through a penalty shootout after a tough goalless draw. With injuries to Araujo and Matias Vina, along with that suspension for Nandez, they head into their semi-final with in-form Colombia on Wednesday battered, bruised — but pumped up.

It wasn’t pretty but no one does gritty like Uruguay. Their famous mantra, the ‘Garra Charrua’, says that this nation never stops fighting.

(Top photo: Ian Maule/Getty Images)

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