This Friday (1st July) the eyes of South America will turn to La Plata, Argentina, as the host nation take on Bolivia in the opening match of the much awaited Copa America, a tournament that will showcase some of the most talented individual players on the planet.
The Copa America returns to the place where it began in 1916 (pre-dating the World Cup and the European Championships, making it the world’s oldest continental football event) when perennial party poopers Uruguay stole the hosts thunder and walked away with the first ever title narrowly beating Argentina in a league format. Almost a century later, those two traditional powers of world football, and the side that were later to emerge as the world’s most emblematic football team, Brazil, look set to battle it out for the 43st Copa America. This triad of teams has scooped 36 of the 42 so far and boast some of the world’s best attacking players between them, so it would take a brave man to look beyond them……
However, it is fair to say, that this year more teams than ever are capable of mounting a serious challenge. Perhaps we are seeing a levelling effect in international football caused by the increasing number of players from minor leagues in countries like Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador gaining valuable experience in Europe, an ironically positive by-product of the much maligned commercialisation and globalisation of the people’s game. This potential for closely-contested games and a rare opportunity to see the South American sides operate at full potential (almost) unencumbered by the rigorous demands of the European club season is a mouth-watering prospect for football fans across the globe and a welcome event for South American fans who are sick of meaningless friendlies played by under-strength squads. Here is a look at each of the sides with my heavily subjective assessment of their respective chances of progressing in the competition:
The seed in Group A and host nation boast an enviable strike line, surely the best in the tournament (if not the world), in both quality and depth. Doubts remain over whether Messi can carry his club form onto the national stage, but surely he will never have a better chance than in this tournament. Di Maria, Higuain, Tevez (possible absentee at time of writing) and Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero (who actually boasts the best strike record at international level in the current squad) complete an embarrassment of riches at coach Sergio Batista’s disposal who will surely be more worried about his defence – which was tellingly exposed by Germany in South Africa.
Veteran Javier Zanetti has been brought back from the international wilderness to add some experience to the squad. The 37 year-old made his debut in the days of Francescoli, Dunga and Valderrama in Copa America 1995 and is now Argentina’s most capped player. Whether he starts or not, he will be a steadying influence on the squad. Batista has also recalled Gabriel Milito who missed the World Cup under Maradona. The group stage should be relatively straight-forward, the acid test, as always will be the knockout rounds when the defence is put under real pressure.
MAN TO WATCH: Carlos Tevez – A determined striker oozing quality. Extremely hard-working with excellent touch. Could benefit from the inevitably excessive attention given to marking the player many believe to be the world’s best, Lionel Messi.
Colombia look a competitive and ever-improving outfit outfit, with Porto trio Radamel Falcao, Fredy Guarin and James Rodriguez in red-hot form off the back of their UEFA Cup triumph and a glut of European based players throughout the side. Colombia’s main problem may be overcoming the psychological barrier of almost a decade’s mediocrity. Missing three consecutive World Cup’s has hurt a nation that boasts the second largest population in South America, and dented the team’s self-belief that led Pele to predict a Colombian triumph at the ill-fated USA 1994 tournament, where defender Andres Escobar tragically lost his life. Their squad blends some excellent young prospects in their midfield and attack with experienced international campaigners like Luis Perea and Mario Yepes at the back. They ought to progress from the group, after that they will be tested to the limit, either by Chile or Uruguay. A win against either of these two is not beyond Colombia, if they perform.
VERDICT: Semi Finals
MAN TO WATCH: Radamel Falcao – An obvious choice given his prolific season with Porto, but has failed to carry his club form onto the international stage thus far. Could be a breakthrough tournament for him.
Group A is completed by Bolivia and invited CONCACAF team Costa Rica, who both seem unlikely to make a lasting impact on the competition. Bolivia’s two successful outings in the competition both came on home soil (Champions in 1963 and Runners-up in 1997), whilst Costa Rica (Los Ticos), a respectable team in the North American qualification region, will struggle to compete against the pure strength in depth on offer in this tournament, particularly with a youth squad, which they plan to bring, having recently competed in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the USA.
VERDICT: Elimination at group stage for both
MEN TO WATCH: Marcelo Martins Moreno – A fringe player with Shakhtar Donetsk in recent years, Martins promising career has stalled somewhat in the past couple of years after a promising start in Brazil. A good opportunity for him.
One of the reasons Brazil have only triumphed 8 times in the Copa America, compared to an impressive 14 occasions for both Argentina and Uruguay is that Brazil tend to place less importance on the Copa America than they do for the World Cup (where they reign supreme with five victories). Historically, on numerous occasions they have left out their key players and taken experimental and youthful squads to the tournament.
In spite of this, Brazil triumphed in Peru in 2004 and then in Venezuela in 2007, without Kaka and Ronaldinho, and as always will be expected to win by a demanding Brazilian public and media. New coach Mano Menezes looks set to continue his predecessor Dunga’s moves towards a more pragmatic approach, to the disdain of the Brazilian public. Putting a date on this tendency is difficult, but it date backs at least to Luiz Felipe Scolari’s World Cup winning side of 2002, which statistically at least, with 18 goals at that tournament, wasn’t perhaps as cautious and methodical as some would have us believe. Teenager Neymar has made an explosive start to his Brazil career, and will be one of the men to watch, in an inventive attack which also boasts Alex Pato and Robinho (both of Milan).
VERDICT: Losing finalist
MAN TO WATCH: Neymar – Slight in build and very difficult to mark, Europe- bound forward with a point to prove. Extremely ambitious.
They will compete with a resolute Paraguay side that has established itself over the past couple of decades as a particularly tough nut to crack. Any Paraguayan would tell you, with some justification, that their closely contested World Cup Quarter Final with Spain could have gone either way, (they certainly had a couple of golden opportunities) and they were Italy’s equal in the group stage too. Taking it from a more negative angle, their golden goal defeats against both France in 1998 and Spain in 2010 were arguably more inevitable than unfortunate eventualities, owing to the lack of attacking thrust and verve that Paraguay offered in those games. These dogged, largely defensive displays do little to challenge the image of competitive, tough Paraguayan sides lacking in creativity, but they are certainly an opponent that no-one looks forward to playing against. Considering the nation’s demographic, their achievements over the last couple of decades at World Cups have been remarkable.
VERDICT: Quarter Finals
MAN TO WATCH: Lucas Barrios – Argentine-born forward who has just had an extremely successful season for German champions Borussia Dortmund. Prolific goalscorer well-known to Chilean fans for an excellent spell with Colo Colo.
Ecuador arrive at the tournament with the bitter taste of disappointment still in their mouths, a truly appalling record historically in the Copa America (a decent performance on home soil in 1993, and a respectable showing at altitude in Bolivia 1997 apart) and the knowledge that they face an extremely tough group to qualify for the latter rounds. The outlook is not as gloomy as it appears however. Ecuadorian football has made great strides in the past couple of decades, and now both at club at international level they provide a tough match for the traditional powers of South America. A solid, athletic side led by rejuvenated talisman Antonio Valencia, are more than capable of springing a few shocks in next month’s competition. A lot will depend on whether one of Ecuador’s front-men steps up to the plate. The fact that veteran midfielder Edison Mendez finished as top scorer in the marathon qualifiers for World Cup 2010 with a modest 4 goals goes some way to explaining why the much improved side narrowly missed out on the trip to South Africa. The solution to this problem could come in the form of Felipe Caicedo, whilst one of Chucho Benitez (strong, but unreliable in front of goal) and Jaime Ayovi (a prospect for the future), both plying their trade in Mexico, will most likely partner Caicedo.
VERDICT: Quarter Finals
MAN TO WATCH: Felipe Caicedo – Looks close to a breakthrough after a respectable season in the Spanish top flight with provincial Spanish outfit. Ambitious, will see the tournament as a window of opportunity.
The other team in the group, Venezuela, are traditionally the whipping boys of Latin American football. Venezuela is the only country in the CONMEBOL region that has never been to a World Cup, and is the only country where Baseball is the dominant sport amongst the nation’s youth. In spite of this, The ‘Vinotinto’ have been making remarkable progress in the last decade or so, now boasting over a phalanx of internationals that play for European sides, and a number of recent scalps including a recent 3-0 win over Mexico (admittedly only in a friendly), holding Brazil 0-0 in Campo Grande and taking six crucial points from Ecuador, both in the qualifiers for South Africa. The Venezuelans will see this tournament as a perfect opportunity to prepare for a serious attempt at qualifying for their first World Cup in Brazil 2018.
VERDICT: Eliminated at group stage
MAN TO WATCH: Jose Rondon – A young player yet to make his mark at international level, but has showed his potential bagging 14 La Liga goals for Malaga last term.
Uruguay come into this tournament with an impressive record equal to that of their larger neighbours across the River Plate (both at the World Cup and in the Copa America). This, together with last year’s surprise run to the Semi-Finals in South Africa, has created a strong feeling of optimism, but also of expectation about the ‘Charruas’ chances in the tournament. This optimism is not without justification however. The forward-line of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, that linked so well in the World Cup, is now supplemented by the excellent Edinson Cavani, who enjoyed a breakthrough season for Napoli in Serie A last term, after a series of moderately successful seasons with Sicilian outfit, Palermo. Uruguay boast an impressive squad, none of which play their club football in their home country.
VERDICT: Semi Finals
MAN TO WATCH: Luis Suarez – Strong, quick, intelligent player with a great finish to boot. An absolute nightmare for defenders. Should have another strong tournament to add to his growing reputation.
Chile are looking to continue a period, which has garnered considerable recognition under the stewardship of larger-than-life Argentine Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa, and his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation, enjoyed considerable success at World Cup 2010, though they never looked like beating Brazil in the knockout round. New coach Claudio Borghi has hinted at continuing with the attractive style of his predecessor. Chile have a number of attacking options that are well suited to this style, including flying winger, Alexis Sanchez, (all but in name a Barcelona player if the Spanish press are to be believed), Matias Fernandez, a talented individual and the volatile Jorge Valdivia. A favourable group and a continuance of the team’s cavalier approach could make Chile not only one of the best teams to watch at the tournament but also team that will give a headache to any defence in the tournament come the later rounds. On another note, quite absurdly, the Chilean and Argentinean federations have come to an agreement whereby the Chileans will play their matches in the Puyo region, in Mendoza and San Juan, close to their own capital.
VERDICT: Quarter Finals
MAN TO WATCH: Alexis Sanchez – Currently in negotiation with Barcelona. Could be about to make his name in a big way. Already well-known to Italian fans for his skilful and exuberant wing-play.
Peru will arrive at the tournament with the usual low expectations and to the backdrop of the usual cynical tabloid press. Pablo Guerrero will assume the responsibility of producing the goals in the absence of Claudio Pizarro. The Peruvian side live in the shadows of their illustrious predecessors whom played attractive attacking football, particularly in the 1970s. Peruvians will hope that canny Uruguayan Sergio Markarian can guide them in the right direction this campaign. Something that may play in their favour is the group, which in my opinion isn’t the strongest due to Mexico not fielding their best squad and being drawn with the weakest of the seeded sides. They may sneak through in third spot but this would mean a showdown with either Brazil or Argentina. Getting out of the group would be a minor triumph in terms of combating the negativity that surrounds the team. The exploits of Cienciano a few years ago, and the fact that Peruvian players are still bought by European teams suggests untapped potential.
VERDICT: Quarter Finals
MAN TO WATCH: Jefferson Farfan – A lively impact player with a wealth of European experience with PSV and latterly FC Schalke 04.
The second invited side from the CONCACAF region is Mexico, who will be well below strength due to their current participation in the Gold Cup in North America. They plan to send a young squad to gain experience, which will not include Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez, whose club understandably don’t want him to spend his summer break from club duties playing two international tournaments.
VERDICT: Eliminated in first round
MAN TO WATCH: Giovani Dos Santos – Still only 22, the Tottenham man has been loaned out 3 times and finds himself low down in the pecking order. A good opportunity to get himself noticed.
There is no doubt that the tournament has an element of unpredictability, owing in large part to friendlies that are no doubt useful for experimentation purposes, but bring into question the value of the international cap, and give no indicator to fans and pundits of form. Aside from that they arguably defraud the paying punter of the spectacle they are paying for. Argentina’s recent friendlies with Nigeria and Poland are typical of this trend, similar has happened with other South American nations recently.
Last time out as hosts of the Copa America in 1987, as reigning World Champions Argentina lost out unexpectedly to Uruguay in the Semi-Finals. They will be keen to make sure a repeat does not happen this time. Uruguay, on the other hand, will draw on a history of such shocks, starting with the Maracanazo in 1950, which psychologically fills them with belief that anything is possible against much larger countries. Their status as a small country defending a proud record gives them a team-spirit that is hard to match. Brazil meanwhile are going for a hat-trick of wins, having taken the last one in Venezuela without their biggest stars in attendance. They are clearly a team never to be ruled out. Chile’s football is easy on the eye, but they will want to achieve other than eliciting plaudits and compliments something this time. I expect group B to be the closest with the other two groups being fairly clear-cut.
I predict a fifteenth crown for Argentina in a hotly disputed final with eternal rivals Brazil.