The 46th edition of the Copa América, football’s longest-running international competition, will kick off in Brazil on June 14.
Pitting the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and James Rodríguez against each other in search of the continental crown, South America’s showpiece tournament promises to be the highlight of a packed summer of football.
After a disappointing exit at the quarter-final stage of the 2018 World Cup, the Seleção will be hoping to make a big statement on home soil, but with Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and defending champions Chile all out to stop them, it is unlikely they will have everything their own way.
As well as the 10 Conmebol countries, this year’s edition will see invited nations Japan and Qatar taking part.
With a lot of teams at the early stage of a new cycle or in a process of rebuilding, this Copa América is not easy to call. But some things are certain; there will be twists, turns, tragedies and some terrific games along the way.
The top two from each group as well as the two best third-placed teams will advance to the quarter finals.
This will be the fifth time that Brazil have hosted the Copa América and on all four previous occasions – 1919, 1922, 1949 and 1989 – they took the title. The expectation is that they will do the same in the Maracanã on July 6.
They have the strongest squad on paper, being able to call on the likes of Casemiro, Marquinhos, Richarlison and Roberto Firmino, and a relatively long-term project in place. Tite, who led the team to Russia last year, will celebrate three years in charge between his team’s second and third group games.
Rivaldo took to Instagram last week and made his thoughts on Brazil’s favouritism very clear. “I believe that Brazil will win the Copa América with ease,” said the 1999 Copa América champion. “I don’t see any team that can beat Brazil."
But not everything is rosy for the men in yellow. Tite has entrusted the captaincy to Daniel Alves after Neymar’s disciplinary issues in Paris and the manager is under huge pressure to get the team to perform.
In the post-Russia friendlies, they have failed to play the sort of gripping football they displayed in World Cup qualifying and there is a lot of speculation in Brazil that Tite could be fired if Brazil do not lift their ninth South American title.
If the burden of expectation gets too much for the the hosts, two teams will best poised to take advantage. Uruguay were strong contenders at last year’s World Cup, and with Messi to call on, Argentina can never be ignored.
Since their disastrous display in Russia, the Albiceleste have been going through a rebuilding process – and not always a particularly smooth one – under the guidance of interim manager Lionel Scaloni.
Out have gone older players like Lucas Biglia, Gonzalo Higuaín and Javier Mascherano, who featured in their 2015 and ’16 Copa América final losses. Scaloni has instead handed more prominent roles to some fresher faces in Lautaro Martínez, Giovani Lo Celso and Leandro Paredes.
The triumvirate of Messi, Sergio Agüero and Angel di Maria are included in the squad – Agüero’s first call-up since Russia – and the question now is whether their young manager can build an energetic side around them that is capable of winning Argentina’s first senior silverware since 1993.
As Barack Obama said when asked about Messi recently, “very few people achieve great things on their own.” And the world’s best player has not always had the help he needs in the sky blue and white stripes.
Oscár Tabarez’s Uruguay, meanwhile, boast a talented young midfield – including Juventus star Rodrigo Bentancur, Arsenal’s Lucas Torreira and Fede Valverde of Real Madrid – to play in between the experience of Godín at the back and Edinson Cavani and Suárez, who Tabarez insists will be fit, up top.
Of all the teams at the tournament, Uruguay have the most consolidated squad and playing style, and, with Suárez, Cavani and Godín not getting any younger, they may be spurred on by the feeling that this is their last shot at repeating their magnificent Copa América success from 2011.
Chile are the defending double champions, having won as hosts in 2015 and at the centenary edition held in the United States a year later, so you would be more than entitled to ask why they are not amongst the favourites this time around.
But the generation that took them to those successive titles has not aged well in the intervening years. Alexis Sanchéz, Arturo Vidal, Gonzalo Jara and Gary Medel are all the wrong side of 30 and were not able to secure a place at the 2018 World Cup.
Their coach, the Colombian Reinaldo Rueda, has been under pressure after some poor performances and results in their 2018-19 friendlies and was even reported to be close to jumping ship for the manager’s job of his home nation in December.
When asked about his team’s Copa América chances recently, Rueda told CNN that, “Chile is going through a tough period. We didn’t qualify for Russia and that demands a renovation. Obviously, we have the motivation and disposition to play, but the challenge is big and the level [of opposition] is higher than in the last two editions.”
Instead of Rueda, Colombia’s football authorities eventually opted for ex-Manchester United coach Carlos Queiroz, who took Iran to the last two World Cups.
He has only been in the job since February and will only have four games under his belt when Colombia play their first game against Argentina on June 15, so the team is still a work in progress.
But with Queiroz’s tournament experience and players like James Rodríguez, Wilmar Barrios, Radamel Falcao, and Atalanta goal machine Duván Zapata, they are undoubtedly the best of the rest.
Peru, Paraguay and Venezuela also deserve a mention, and will each have familiar players as well as youngsters worth keeping an eye on.
Peru, who importantly managed to keep coach Ricardo Gareca after the 2018 World Cup, will be calling up a squad very similar to the one they took to Russia. Lifelong friends Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfán will lead the line and will be competently backed up by Renato Tapia, Luis Advíncula and Christian Cueva as they look to progress with Brazil from Group A.
But fighting them for second place in that group (the two best third-placed teams also go through) will be Venezuela, who can call on Newcastle forward Salomon Rondón, 2018 MLS top scorer Josef Martínez and Yangel Herrera, who spent half of last season at Huesca on loan from Manchester City.
Despite the unsettling political and humanitarian situation at home, Venezuela have been doing well under Rafael Dudamel and beat an Argentina side that included Messi 3-1 in March.
Paraguay, like Colombia, have a new coach in the shape of Eduardo Berizzo, but with a central defensive partnership of Fabián Balbuena and Palmeiras’ Gustavo Gómez they will be an extremely tough side to break down.
Meanwhile, Ecuador and Bolivia as well as guests Japan and Qatar will not be expected to do a great deal. Qatar, who won the Asian Cup earlier in the year, could have an advantage as a completely unknown quantity, but Japan are taking a squad with 17 uncapped young players in preparation for next year’s Olympic tournament, so will most likely struggle.
Best Player and Top Scorer
With some of the world’s best on show, these will be hotly contested awards.
Messi could be tempted to save himself as there will be another edition of this tournament, with the final to be held in Argentina, in 2020. But after so many oh-so-close attempts at an international trophy, he will surely feel that his chances are running out – expect him to give his all.
For top scorer, there are Everton’s Richarlison, who has played well for the Seleção and is expected to start their games, and Sergio Agüero, who scored another hatful for City this term.
If Suárez is not completely fit, then Cavani will be more than happy to take responsibility for finishing the chances Uruguay create.
Colombia’s Duván Zapata, despite never having scored at international level, could also be an outside shout. James Rodríguez, who will hope to be in contention for player of the tournament, will be providing the bullets, so the man who scored 28 goals for Atalanta this season will fancy bagging a few for his country in Brazil.
The Copa América can always be relied on to bring some new names to the fore. This year, Grêmio’s brilliant young attacker Everton could play an important role for Brazil from the bench, whilst Sebastian Villa of Boca Juniors is a quick, direct wide player and could do well for Colombia.
In midfield, Argentina’s Giovani Lo Celso and Exequiel Palacios will both be hoping to star in their national team shirt for the first time, as will Valverde for Uruguay and Arthur of Brazil.
At the back, Gustavo Gómez is one to watch. He is currently on loan at Palmeiras from AC Milan, but good performances for Paraguay at the tournament could persuade another European club to take a chance on the 26-year-old.
In goal, and potentially the revelation of the Copa América, is Venezuela’s Wuilker Fariñez. At 6 foot, he is not the biggest for a ‘keeper, but the 21-year-old Millionarios player’s reflexes, agility and cat-like leap more than make up for it.