Copa América Centenario Preview

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Credit: Comnebol.com

Like the World Cup and the European Championships, the modern Copa América runs roughly on a four-year cycle. The current South American champions are Chile who won the last tournament on home soil just, er, last year. Yes, last year. The 2015 competition saw the home team beat Argentina 4-1 on penalties and it was a deserved, if somewhat unexpected victory. So why is there another Copa only a year later? Well, 2016 marks a century since the first Copa, or South American Championship of Nations as it was then known (hosted by Argentina, won by Uruguay). And it’s being held in the United States. In ten different cities. And the U.S. is participating in it, along with Mexico. And so are teams from Central America and the Caribbean. One big happy tournament of the Americas. Money is playing a part as well. Ticket prices have been criticised for their, well, cost. Many journalists and commentators (and even national federations) don’t necessarily see this Copa as a ‘genuine’ one. But enough with the negativity, it is going to be good, I promise…

Kicking off tonight (June 3rd) will be the hosts and Colombia in Santa Clara. For the U.S. this represents probably their best shot at winning something other than the Gold Cup. It’s also important for the handsomely paid coach Jürgen Klinsmann that his team makes at least a decent fist of getting to the knock out stages. It shouldn’t be too difficult an ask. Colombia, the neutrals’ favourites from the 2014 World Cup, are likely picks to win the group but it would be hard to envisage Costa Rica and Paraguay getting enough points to get out of Group A.

Costa Rica are no mugs (they are the reigning Central American champions, and finished top of the same 2014 World Cup group that the England circus finished bottom of) but they suffered a big blow this week with the withdrawal of goalkeeper Keylor Navas who, in this writer’s opinion, is the most underrated ‘keeper playing in Europe. Assuming Colombia will win the group then it’s a toss-up between the hosts and the Costa Ricans for 2nd place and home advantage may just tip the scales in favour of Klinsmann and co.

I’ve got Colombia as favourites, along with Chile. It’s not because I’m biased. I mean, yes I was living in Colombia last year and yes I fell in love with the place and yes I’ve just finished my dissertation on Colombian football and yes I want them to win. But I do have an argument to make of some sorts. The traditional ‘big two’ of Argentina and Brazil have had all kinds of injury problems and withdrawals disrupting their preparations. The respective coaches don’t seem to inspire anyone, least of all the fans. And their teams are, for the most part, functional and require ‘special moments’ from one or two players. Colombia is different.

Coach José Pékerman has had to carry out a revolution of sorts since the last World Cup. Gone are Yepes and Falcao. James is now the captain and head of the attack is the impressive Carlos Bacca of AC Milan. Ospina, Murillo, Cardona, Cuadrado…there is an impressive core and all are available to the coach. Results have been mixed in World Cup Qualification so far (ten points from six games) but the team is improving. There should be more playing time for a player I really like, Edwin Cardona of Monterrey in Mexico’s Liga MX. I watched him play a few times when I was in Colombia while he was still at Atlético Nacional. He’s been criticised previously for his somewhat ‘portly’ physique and isn’t a guy who is going to ‘get up and down’ but his skill set is high and he offers something different to James. Colombia’s latest wunderkind, striker Marlos Moreno, is also included in the squad after some impressive performances for Atlético Nacional this season. The 19-year-old has been linked with a host of European teams and a goal or two in the Copa could quicken the pace of his departure from Medellín.

From the outside Brazil look like a bit of a mess. Their priority is the Olympics football tournament, being held around the country as part of the upcoming Rio games. And so Neymar, by far and away their best player, is being saved for that (Barcelona wouldn’t release him for both tournaments, as is their right). They’ve had numerous dropouts through injury (Bayern winger Douglas Costa and Inter Milan centre back Miranda to name just two) and so when you factor in the Olympics and the players Dunga has fallen out with there is a decreasing pool to pick from.

Dunga, World Cup winning captain, gives off the air of a man who is making it up as he goes along. Costa drops out, and so he calls up Kaka, the man who definitely doesn’t belong to money. I witnessed Kaka in the flesh playing for São Paulo vs Atlético Nacional in Medellín in 2014 and he looked anything like a footballer. And so of course within days of his call up he pulled out through injury. To be replaced by Ganso, a player who has never really got going. Linked with every European giant under the sun a few years ago this surely must represent his last chance with the Selecão.

Their Group B rivals will likely only be Ecuador as Peru and Haiti give the impression of just being there to make up the numbers. For Dunga getting out of the group will surely not be enough and he will probably lose his job if they go out before the semi-finals. Ecuador could be the dark horses of the tournament. Riding high in WCQ (2nd in the table with 13 points from 6 games) they have a great ‘team’ ethic without having to rely on ‘superstars’, with their highest profile players probably still Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia. I’d fancy them to give anyone a game. And I think they will beat Brazil in their game in Pasadena on Saturday night.

Group C – Uruguay and Mexico will finish 1st and 2nd. It’s not that I’m dismissing Venezuela and Jamaica but…well, actually I am. Venezuela (for various political/social reasons that I won’t go into) could do with its national team doing something special to aid the national mood but even with the presence of the brilliant Salomón Rondón I can’t see it. Venezuela does have the nicest kit at the Copa though, for what it’s worth. Uruguay are top of the South American WCQ group and in Luis Suárez they have the best number 9 in football. He has been in white hot form in 2015/2016 and I think his goals and general waspy play will get them to the semis at least. Thankfully 59-year-old Diego Lugano is no longer a national team fixture.

Mexico is a curious case. Much like Spain in the 1990’s/early 2000’s they just seem to be there, without ever really doing anything. That could change now. New coach Juan Carlos Osorio (formerly of São Paulo and Atlético Nacional) is experienced and intelligent, and the return to the national team picture of Chicharito is a huge plus. Deemed of no use to Manchester United he was sold to Bayer Leverkusen and banged in 17 goals in 28 Bundesliga appearances this season. Give him the service and there is no better finisher in the 6 yard box than the Little Pea.

And so we come to Group D. Chile are the champions, have the most experienced squad (in terms of average age) and in Alexis and Arturo Vidal they have two players who could play for any top-level team. They have a new coach, the Argentine Juan Antonio Pizzi, so there may be a period of adjustment required. They could do with one or two younger sets of legs in there but the smart money will be on them.

As for Argentina, they have a whiff of Messi-itis about them. In training this week the team that looks likely to be given the nod vs Chile on Monday night is as follows: Romero; Mercado, Otamendi, Funes Mori, Rojo; Mascherano, Banega, Augusto Fernández; Di Maria, Nicolás Gaitan and Higuaín. Hardly inspiring stuff. Messi has an injury (and is still in Barcelona getting treatment, suggesting it is a bad one) and Agüero continues to exhibit signs of being made of glass. The squad generally hardly screams ‘winners’. Lavezzi, who has taken himself off to China for the money inexplicably gets in the squad over the frighteningly good Paulo Dybala of Juventus, who scored 23 in 46 games in all competitions as the Old Lady captured the Serie A/Coppa Italia double. Higuaín, notorious national team bottler gets another go around. He may have scored 36 league goals for Napoli this season but I don’t care. He goes missing in the big games for club and country and at best should be on the bench. But like Dunga it seems Tata Martino enjoys pragmatism and a reliance on a moment of brilliance from someone to get them out of a hole. Whether Messi will be in a fit state to do it for them is anyone’s guess.

So despite the negativity and some missing stars I think it will be an excellent Copa. The kick off times for UK audiences is shite (early hours mostly) and even then it’s on Premier Sports which I’m reliably informed only two people actually subscribe to. Yours truly will actually be at a game though, at the semi-final at Soldier Field in Chicago on June 22nd. So expect pictures of Latin Americans. Chicago has a large Latin American population, Mexicans especially. So the atmosphere should be good. I’m hoping for a combination of Colombia/Argentina/Brazil/Mexico for that game anyway. If it’s Panama vs Haiti then I will kill someone.

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