Lionel Messi and Neymar aren’t used to being upstaged but it could happen as the Copa America begins its three-and-a-half-week run in the early hours of tomorrow morning in the wake of the Fifa corruption scandal that forced president Sepp Blatter to announce his resignation.
Many of the corruption allegations have centered on the governing body of South American football. Its former president, Nicolas Leoz, of Paraguay, was one of 14 people indicted by the US Department of Justice two weeks ago on charges of bribery, racketeering and money laundering. Eugenio Figueredo, of Uruguay, who succeeded Leoz, was among seven Fifa officials arrested in Zurich.
This is not about revenge. We just want this team to be rememberedLionel Messi
Messi and Argentina teammates Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez have travelled half way around the world from the Champions League final in Berlin, along with Brazil striker Neymar and Chilean players Arturo Vidal and Claudio Bravo, to be in Chile for the tournament. They’ll need to put on a show to claim back the main stage. But they are sure to be jet-lagged while tending to unfinished business from last year’s World Cup.
The major absence is Uruguay talisman Luis Suarez, who scored for Barcelona in last weekend’s Champions League final but is ineligible for this tournament as he is still serving a ban for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.
The main story lines will revolve around Argentina and Brazil. Argentina, the beaten finalists in last year’s World Cup final against Germany, haven’t won a major trophy in 22 years. The last was the Copa America.
Brazil’s 7-1 battering by Germany in the World Cup semi-finals will never be forgotten, but it could be softened if they end up winning the final in Santiago on 4 July.
Colombia and Chile, meanwhile, may have their best teams in a generation, and, even without Suarez, defending champions Uruguay are a factor.
However, no country in the world has more talented forwards than Argentina: Messi, Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi. And no player is under more pressure than Messi, who has yet to bring Argentina a team title, the way Diego Maradona did, or the way Pele did for Brazil.
Messi is fresh from Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Juventus in Berlin. He’s at his peak now, and will be 31 at the next World Cup in Russia in 2018. So many see this as his time.
“We have arrived at a special moment in our careers,” Messi wrote in the official magazine of the Argentine Football Association. “We came to the World Cup and barely missed out on glory. This gives us a push and makes us strong for what’s coming up. This is not about revenge. We just want this team to be remembered and be able to leave our country well respected.”
Brazil coach Dunga and many in the country believe the World Cup thrashing by Germany was a freak result. “What happened in the World Cup was something isolated,” Dunga said.
“Everyone talks about the need to get back respect, but Brazilian football is still admired everywhere, the Brazilian jersey is still being coveted a lot.”
Since taking over the national team after the World Cup, Dunga had won all nine of his matches ahead of his side’s final warm-up friendly against Honduras in the early hours of this morning.
However, Brazil have traditionally not placed as much importance on the tournament as their rivals. They have won it eight times compared to 15 for Uruguay and 14 for Argentina.
Colombia have won the title only once, in 2001, however they came close to upsetting Brazil in last year’s World Cup quarter-finals, eventually losing 2-1.
In James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao, who missed last year’s World Cup with a knee injury, they have the players to pose a threat. “We have very good forwards in their prime,” said Colombia coach Jose Pekerman, one of six Argentines coaching in the tournament.
Another Argentine coach is Jorge Sampaoli, who has a so-called “Golden Generation” with Chile led by Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez, Vidal and Bravo.
“We’re living through a generation of fantastic football players,” said Sampaoli, who saw his side also lose out narrowly against Brazil in last summer’s World Cup, going down 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the round of 16.
It may not be obvious, but the Copa America might be nearly as difficult to win as the World Cup. The favourites are Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. All five reached the final 16 in Brazil. Mexico, who are one of two guest teams along with Jamaica, also reached the last 16, although the Mexicans are fielding a weakened team in Chile. Of those six, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina reached the quarter-finals.
Chile open the tournament early tomorrow when they face Ecuador in Santiago. Argentina meet Paraguay in their opener on Saturday, while Brazil kick off against Peru on Sunday. The football world watches with interest.