Chile is gearing up to host the 44th edition of the Copa America, the world’s oldest continental championship, and one that has provided a stage for South America’s finest to showcase their talents over the course of its 99-year history. This time, perhaps more than ever before, the teams will arrive overflowing with stars who lace their boots in some of the planet's biggest leagues. And not only do they have their sights set on winning the coveted trophy, they are also looking to qualify for the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017.
Chile are hosting the tournament for a seventh time and are intent on a first taste of glory. They go into the competition confident in their ability to do so, given the form of attacker Alexis Sanchez, who had an impressive season with Arsenal, and Arturo Vidal, who won the Italian league-and-cup double with Juventus as well as reaching the UEFA Champions League final. Furthermore, Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo gives the side security at the back, while Eduardo Vargas’s goal threat at the opposite end of the pitch give *La Roja *reason to believe they can end the curse of Copa America hosts – Colombia were the last team to lift the trophy on home turf when they triumphed in 2001.
“On paper, Chile’s group looks manageable,” said their legendary former forward Ivan Zamorano, giving an insight into the atmosphere in the host nation, whose last podium finish at the tournament was back in 1991 - incidentally also the last time they were hosts. “The outlook is promising but modern football is unpredictable. There won’t be any pressure for players of the calibre of Bravo, Alexis, Vidal and [Gary] Medel, who play in big leagues. That’ll be an advantage.”
La Roja* will meet some illustrious opponents in Group A. Mexico may not be taking a full strength side to Chile, but they will be led by Rafael Marquez, who captained the team at the last four FIFA World Cups™. Ecuador will likewise be tough to beat, especially with quality players such as Jefferson Montero in their ranks, while the ever-menacing Marcelo Martins will spearhead Bolivia’s charge.
Most successful sides square off
Defending champions Uruguay, the Copa America's record winners with 15 triumphs, will be hoping to build on their displays at Brazil 2014 here. In the absence of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani will be the side’s figurehead. Last season the striker seized four domestic crowns with Paris Saint-Germain.
In an interview with FIFA.com, Copa America 2011 winner Diego Forlan gave his thoughts on Uruguay’s chances: “There’s new blood in the team now, with very promising players like Diego Rolan, to give just one example. Uruguay are going to miss Luis [Suarez], but they’ve played some great games without him and have been just as effective.”
In Group B they will meet last year’s World Cup finalists Argentina, who arrive in Chile with a fearsome line-up. Alongside captain Lionel Messi, who won the treble of La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League with Barcelona, *La Albiceleste *can call on the returning Carlos Tevez, who had an outstanding season with Juventus, Sergio Aguero, who finished as the Premier League’s top scorer with Manchester City, and the unpredictable talents of Angel Di Maria. Having won the Copa America 14 times, Argentina are eager for success once again to end their 22-year drought at the tournament.
Coach Gerardo Martino is aware his side are one of the favourites going into the at the 12-team contest: “Finishing as World Cup runners-up means these players have to improve on what they did last year. It’s been a good season and these players are in better shape than when they arrived at the World Cup. And on top of that, Messi couldn’t play any better than he is at the moment.”
Martino will be one of six Argentinian coaches in Chile, an unprecedented figure in Copa America history. *El Tata *will be joined on the touchlines by compatriots Jorge Sampaoli with Chile, Gustavo Quinteros with Ecuador, Jose Pekerman with Colombia, Ricardo Gareca with Peru, and Ramon Diaz with Paraguay.
Argentina will be particularly wary of the latter after the two were drawn in the same group: Paraguay may not have qualified for Brazil 2014 but they finished as runners-up at the Copa America 2011. Led by captain Roque Santa Cruz and veterans Justo Villar and Paulo Da Silva, Los *Guaranies *will be tough opponents if they play with their customary pride. Jamaica, making their tournament debut, will look to Rodolph Austin and Jermaine Taylor for inspiration.
Neymar, Rodriguez headline the poolIn Group C, Brazil are out to make amends for their disappointing finish at last year’s World Cup, and the side has undergone a period of rebuilding since Dunga returned to their reins. However, with players of the calibre of Neymar, who won multiple medals with Barcelona last season, David Luiz and Thiago Silva, who formed the backbone of PSG’s success in France, and the return of the mercurial Robinho, Brazil will doubtless be one of the teams to beat.
Meanwhile, Colombia went further than ever before at last year’s World Cup and they too have an array of talent at their disposal. Real Madrid’s James Rodriguez will be flanked by the poaching prowess of Radamel Falcao, and Carlos Bacca, who won the UEFA Europa League crown with Sevilla. Accordingly, coach Pekerman has plenty of faith in Los Cafeteros: “This team has always accomplished the goals they’ve set themselves. They grew and matured to be able to reach the World Cup and with that mindset they’re going to give their all at the Copa America. The players are very determined.”
Group C will also house two other teams with intimidating names on their squad lists. Peru are banking on a mix of youth and experience and will be led by veterans Claudio Pizarro, Jefferson Farfan and Paolo Guerrero, while a Venezuela side that has constantly improved over the last decade will be counting on the evergreen talent of Juan Arango, Salomon Rondon and the tireless Tomas Rincon. With enough stars to cater for all tastes, the Copa America promises to be an unmissable affair.