By Emma Whitney.
Batistuta. Ronaldo. Suárez. All names which sound so familiar to European football fans, and rightly so. What do they have in common, apart from being greats of the game? All have won the Copa América, South América’s premier international football competition.
For too long not given the attention it deserves in the Old World, the Copa América’s audience is growing, not least because of the wealth of Premier League and La Liga talent involved. Unfortunately, such interest comes when South American soccer is still reeling from the arrest of nine officials from its governing body, Conmebol, in relation to the Fifa bribery investigations by the FBI. Diego Maradona, amongst others, has welcomed the arrests, telling media in Argentina “. . . today the truth is out [ . . . the Conmebol officials arrested] hate soccer. They hate transparency. Enough shady dealings. Enough lying to the people.”
Nevertheless, this June Chile will host their seventh tournament, having taken over the mantle from Brazil, who deemed holding the Copa América in between the World Cup and the Olympics as slightly too much to be going on with. Yet the Seleção will see Chile 2015 as a chance to exorcise the ghosts of that Belo Horizonte semi-final. Holders Uruguay may well be toothless this summer, with Luis Suárez still banned – for now – and Argentina will be desperate to claim their first piece of senior silverware since 1992, if you don’t count the Kirin Cup (and many don’t).
Colombia will be looking to prove that last year’s World Cup exploits weren’t just a fluke, and Central America’s Mexico – one of two invitees to the tournament – will hope to spoil the party. That’s without taking into account Alexis Sanchez and co from La Roja. Whetted your appetite enough already?
Predating the World Cup by 14 years, the Copa América has its roots in Argentinian independence. The Campeonato Sudamericano de Football of 1916 took place 100 years after Argentina’s formal split from Madrid, with La Albiceleste, Brazil, Chile and winners Uruguay taking part. Next year, an extra tournament is scheduled to be played in the United States for the first time, in order to celebrate the Copa América’s centenary; the recent Fifa arrests and turmoil within Concacaf and Conmebol may affect this, however, especially considering one of the main allegations involves a reputed $110m worth of bribes relating to the planning of the Copa América Centenario.
The USMNT have often been invited to take part in Conmebol’s flagship tournament since 1993 as, unlike the Euros, all 10 Conmebol nations automatically qualify. In order for the 12-team tournament system to work, two teams with close cultural or geographical links to Latin América are therefore also included.
Held every four years at the moment – special celebratory editions notwithstanding – the Copa América has endured a chequered past, with poor relations between certain South American footballing federations hampering the regular running of the tournament. In 1959, two tournaments were held, in Argentina and Ecuador, the latter of which saw Brazil enter a state team from Pernambuco. Incidentally, the Canarinho’s lowest ebb in the competition occurred when they were knocked out in the 2001 quarter-finals by a hastily scrabbled-together Honduras side.
In 2011, the competition witnessed a mass brawl in the semi-final between Paraguay and Venezuela; Paraguay, who lost in the final to Uruguay, were managed by one Tata Martino.
Lionel Messi’s mate couldn’t work his magic for Los Guaraníes, who rightfully, you could argue, succumbed to Suárez’s Celeste; if Paraguay had won the 2011 Copa América, they would have been the first team to do so without winning a single match outright. With 15 titles to their name, Los Charrúas are the most successful side in Copa América history, just above Argentina on 14. The loss of Suárez for chowing down on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in the World Cup last year will no doubt hit Uruguay hard, though the player and his country’s playing union are attempting to get the ban overturned, in wake of the Fifa arrests.
One man looking to take advantage of his club-mate’s possible absence will be Messi. That arguably the best football player ever has only an Olympic Gold Medal and a Fifa World Youth Championship to his name is criminal. Most of us would give our eye-teeth for an Olympic medal, to be fair, but both Messi and Argentina should be doing better internationally.
La Albiceleste’s defence will be the big question; they are spoilt for riches up front, with Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero all back in the fold, fit and on top form. Of course, both Tevez and Messi, plus winger Roberto Pereyra and Javier Mascherano will be involved in the small matter of the Champions League Final just five days before the Copa América starts. Whether they will have enough time to acclimatise before Argentina’s first game in La Serena – against Paraguay on June 13 – remains to be seen.
As hosts, Chile will feel like 2015 provides them with the perfect chance to win their first Copa América, and with Sánchez in their ranks, fresh from his first FA Cup win, who can blame them. Interestingly, one of the host cities, Viña del Mar, is home to a club called Everton, named after the Toffees themselves (Everton made a trip to South América in the early 20th century).
As for Brazil, players are starting to drop like flies. Both Marcelo and Oscar are out through injury, though Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho has been called up. Talisman Neymar will also be faced with a short recovery period after the Champions League Final. At least all the Barça and Juve players involved in the Berlin game will have a little respite if things get tight in the knockout stages; only the final of the Copa América has extra-time.
With Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Jamaica, Paraguay and Venezuela set to compete against the big guns, maybe this year’s Copa América will remind us what is great about football – passion, skill, enjoyment and talent. With the week the sport’s had, we could all do with that.
Read more from Emma Whitney here!