Copa America Preview
Note: Black Matt provided this preview, we are STILL working on getting his login. I will have a prediction and a preview for each of our matches with TV links during the tournament. Additionally, we will be live blogging Brazil weekend and evening matches during the Copa.
On Friday begins the 43rd edition of one of the most storied competitions in the world, the Copa America. Cup holders Brazil enter the unfriendly waters of Argentina to defend their title from four years ago.
Forty-two previous tournaments have been staged, but in a way, this might be the most important one yet. It’s a competition with a checkered history, having gone through different names, formats, schedules, and controversies.
From 1967 to 1975 it wasn’t held at all, and when it resumed it did so without a fixed venue for twelve straight years.
The BBC columnist Tim Vickery, British-born but based in Rio, likes to make the point that this is a tournament that has finally found its identity, and he’s right.
Once upon a time, the Copa was held every single year. When that ended, decades of uncertainty and instability in South America rendered the competition something of a mole – you never knew quite when it would pop up.
When things finally stabilized in 1987, organizers settled on a two-year schedule. Unfortunately, two years is two too few for a major international tournament, and as a result the prestige and relevance it had once enjoyed shrunk drastically. Teams prepared little or not at all, often sending experimental squads made up of youth players and second-rate backups. It wasn’t until the late 90’s, when Brazil sent sides built around such stars as Ronaldo (who enjoyed two absolutely stellar tournaments in ’97 and ’99) along with Romario, Rivaldo, and even a young Ronaldinho, that the Copa America began to regain some of its luster.
It was a sudden reversal of inter-continental form for Brazil, which despite having won four World Cups by that point had only won four Copa Americas (and two of those before 1925.) I suppose it had never been a tournament given much credence in Brazil, who were obsessed with the World Cup and only the World Cup ever since being overwhelming favorites in 1938 only to lose before the finals. (Not the first time that’s happened!) But since 1997, the Seleção have been far and away the most triumphant side, displacing Argentina by taking home four out of the last five trophies.
More important to the tournament, though, were two changes: the switch to a 4-year schedule, and the reversal of political and economic fortune in the region.
It’s the former that Vickery most likes to point out. A tournament held every four years will automatically have more prestige than one held every two: nations know that, should they fail, it will be a long time before they have another chance to get it right, so no one can afford to take it lightly.
Furthermore, deciding to hold the tournament the year after the World Cup was a splendid idea. Not only does it basically kick off the next round of World Cup qualifying (which in South America is highly competitive and very long) but it cements a new international schedule that features one major senior-level tournament each year. The World Cup, of course, followed by the Copa, then the Euros, and finally the ugly duckling of the lot, the Confederations Cup. At last, dedicated football fans have high level football they can watch every summer upon the conclusion of the European club season.
The second reason, namely the improved political and economic climates in South America, is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that with the fascist and communist dictatorships that so ravaged the continent beginning to fade, it is no longer only the two major powers, Brazil and Argentina, that can field strong, competitive sides. Due to having a more stable base on which to reside, domestic football in countries like Chile, Columbia and Paraguay is slowly but surely beginning to improve, and by extension their national teams have as well. That’s why the 2011 Copa America might just be the greatest ever. And the most important.
Coming off a World Cup tournament where South America did fabulously well, we are now poised to see what I think will be a very strong competition.
Columbia is beginning to develop in the way the world thought it would in the early 90’s before Andres Escobar was killed and the drug cartels took over, having hosted a U-21 World Cup in the early part of the decade that by all accounts went beautifully. They can even boast a few stars now, Porto’s Radamel Falcao being the most notable. They should be a dangerous side for the unwary.
Paraguay made it to the Round of Sixteen in the World Cup, with a solid if unspectacular squad. Chile was maybe the most entertaining team of the tournament, and though their eccentric genius manager Marcelo Bielsa has moved on, they still maintain an attacking style.
Watch out for Humberto Suazo, their main goal-scorer who found the net more times in the WC qualifying campaign than even Fabiano did. Even Venezuela is improving. Though their country has and probably always will be a baseball nation first, football is beginning to take a greater hold there, and if they have no stars, at the very least their team is better-drilled than it has been in the past. They even defeated Brazil back in 2008.
And of course, there’s Uruguay. While I don’t believe they were a stronger side than Brazil or Argentina last year, neither do I believe their run to the semi-finals was a fluke. If you were to ask me to choose between the Argentine strike force (Messi, di Maria, Lavessi/Higuain), the Brazilian (Neymar, Robinho, Pato) and the Uruguayan one (Suarez, Forlan, Cavani) I would be sorely tempted to take Uruguay.
There’s one other factor that makes this edition of the Copa America so unique: worldwide coverage.
For a long time, people around the world were basically doomed to watch only the football held in their region. It would be almost impossible for someone in Europe or North America – never mind Asia or Australia) to see the Copa America. I was able to watch one full match live – only one – from the 1999 tournament, and that was on a snowy, static-filled channel broadcasted in Spanish during the cliché-ridden height of the “goooooooollllllll!!!!!!” era.
In 2007 the concept of live-blogging was a nascent art; I remember being glued to my computer screen at work, watching the FIFA live blog give me an update every ten minutes as Robinho enjoyed the best month of his career.
But now, thanks to satellite television, and more importantly, the rise of pirated steams on the internet , I can watch a cricket match in India if I want to.
YouTube will be broadcasting every minute of the Copa America, ensuring that almost everyone in the world can watch as long as they have a computer. I’d apologize to China and North Korea at this point, but they’ll never read this, so why bother?
So what does this mean for Brazil?
Fortunately for Mano Menezes, the pressure isn’t quite as high as you’d expect. With Brazil hosting the WC in 2014, everyone knows that the years leading up to it have to be spent developing, even at the cost of winning. It doesn’t mean Brazil shouldn’t try their damndest to win (I reject utterly the notions that Brazil should lose for superstitious reasons, or even to get Mano fired) but that a loss wouldn’t be taken quite as hard, as long as the team makes up for it later and prevents a second Maracanaço.
Still, this is a turning point for the squad just as much as it is for the tournament itself. The hiring of Mano was supposed to mark a new era for Brazilian football (and by “new” I mean “a romantic return to the misremembered past”) and this is the first major milestone in that journey. If the team crashes out, maybe the only major milestone.
In 2007, Dunga’s victory was only a slight mollification for the hordes of “fans” who wanted to see jogo bonito (my next article will be on this subject – expect it to be long) but in 2011, it’s more important that we see progress.
Leaving aside notions of beautiful football, what I want to see is some sign that the team’s many problems are being addressed. Too often we’ve seen the team:
• botch their finishing, (every match so far)
• become bogged down in the midfield, unable to advance the ball, (the Iran, Argentina, France and Romania matches)
• or in general look apathetic and slow (Iran, Ukraine, first half against Holland, second half against Romania)
This is the first time we will the team play in a competitive match. Hitherto, all of South America has been condemned to play little but friendlies against substandard competition, so it’s impossible to know how truly good anybody is. Maybe a competive match, where every minute counts, will bring the best out of the players. Maybe.
Whether it does or not, what we need to see out of this tournament, even more than winning, is the players using the fact that this is a competition to sharpen their mental focus. Only this way can they improve their finishing. If they can’t do that, and it doesn’t improve, that’s an ominous sign for our 2014 chances.
We need to see Mano do something to address the lack of creativity in his midfield. The return of Ganso should help immeasurably, but if once again we see the likes of Lucas Leiva, Ramires and Elias waste time by making backpass after backpass, we’ll know that Mano hasn’t caught onto the problem. And if he – and the team as a whole – can’t catch on for the South American championships, then when the hell can we expect them to catch on?
Similarly, Mano has a poor track record of his getting his team to come out of the gate fired up and ready to go. In a round-robin to single-elimination tournament, that can be a fatal, fatal weakness. It’s one thing even Dunga detractors have to admit that he excelled at: the team was always prepared from the moment the first whistle blew.
Against the US, the players looked amped from the start, probably becaues for most of them, that was their first time in the yellow shirt. Hopefully, they’ll be similarly pumped for their first competitive match in the blue and yellow.
Finally, this is the first time in almost a year where the complete squad, the squad that Mano has envisioned from day one, has been together. Pato, Neymar, Robinho, Ganso, Ramires, Lucas, Andre Santos, Lucio, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves and Julio Cesar will be starting on Sunday. Save for Lucio and Cesar, that’s the exact lineup from the USA match. A combination of injuries, suspensions, and club demands have kept them apart, but the team faces none of those hurdles now. It’s time to show the world what they really can do.
For the 43rd edition of the Copa America, I’m not really thinking about 2011. What I’m thinking about is 2014.
Mano, show me that you are, too.
Question for discussion:
Here’s something for you all to chew on in the comments below. Say that Brazil crashes out in the group stage of the competition and Mano gets fired. Imagine for a moment that none of the CBF’s choices are available – no Muricy, no Scolari, no Ney Franco, nobody. Brazil has never before hired a foreign coach to manage the Seleção . Would you be in favor of them looking abroad for a replacement, or opposed? Why or why not? And if they did look abroad, who do you think would make a good candidate?
Short of winning the entire tournament, what do you most want to see out of the team, and out of Mano?
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