RIO DE JANEIRO, June 9 (Xinhua) — The 47th edition of the Copa America will begin on Sunday with a strikingly different look to the one envisaged by organizers.
The world’s oldest international football tournament was postponed by a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic and will feature strict sanitary protocols that effectively oblige the 10 competing teams to remain in a safety bubble while banning the presence of fans at stadiums.
The competition will be bereft of the two guest nations that had been invited to participate. Both Qatar and Australia withdrew in February, citing a clash with 2022 Asian World Cup qualifiers.
Additionally, the event will not be played in either of the two countries originally chosen as co-hosts. On May 31, the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) awarded the hosting rights to Brazil, having dropped Argentina due to surging Covid-19 cases and Colombia because of social unrest.
Despite these setbacks, expectations are high that the Copa America will be a success on the pitch as some of the world’s best players – including Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal – bid to lead their teams to continental glory at the Maracana stadium on July 10. Here are six things to look out for.
1. Messi: Will this be the year?
Just shy of his 34th birthday, it is reasonable to assume that this will be Lionel Messi’s last shot at winning the Copa America, a tournament Argentina have not won since 1993.
The Barcelona forward has made no secret of his desire to win his first major trophy with the Albiceleste and seems more driven than ever, having said last month that Argentina “cannot not be satisfied” with their third place in the last Copa America two years ago.
Even considering his advancing years, Messi is still a force to be reckoned with, scoring 38 times and providing 14 assists in 47 matches for Barcelona in 2020-21.
2. Peru: The Gareca effect
Peru may be struggling in the South American zone’s 2022 World Cup qualifiers, but rival teams will know they cannot underestimate the Blanquirroja in major tournaments. Under the stewardship of Argentine Ricardo Gareca, Peru beat Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia en route to the final of the 2019 edition, which they lost 3-1 to hosts Brazil.
A year earlier, Peru were more than competitive at the World Cup in Russia, their first appearance in the competition in 36 years.
3. Brazil eye more silverware amid march toward Qatar
Brazil showed that they are unaffected by turbulence off the pitch with World Cup qualifying victories over Ecuador and Paraguay in the past week.
Tite’s men now have six wins from as many qualifiers as they cruise towards an automatic place at football’s showpiece tournament in Qatar next year. The five-time world champions have not lost a competitive fixture since their quarterfinal defeat to Belgium at the 2018 World Cup in Russia and they are clear favorites to win a 10th Copa America title here.
The sublime run of form comes despite ructions behind the scenes. On Wednesday, Brazil’s national team issued a joint statement questioning the decision to stage the Copa America in the country while it grapples with soaring COVID-19 cases and deaths.
4. Venezuela not just making up the numbers
For many years a punching bag for their stronger South American rivals, Venezuela have commanded respect since reaching the Copa America semifinals for the first time in 2011. In addition to veterans such as former Malaga and Espanyol right-back Roberto Rosales and Torino midfielder Tomas Rincon, Vinotinto head coach Jose Peseiro has a wealth of talented young players at his disposal.
Among them are goalkeeper Joel Graterol, midfielder Ronald Hernandez, defender Nahuel Ferraresi and the midfield trio of Yangel Herrera, Cristian Casseres and Yefferson Soteldo. All are under the age of 25 and have already impressed at international level.
Opponents are likely to be offered few scoring opportunities against the Vinotinto, with Peseiro likely to adopt a five-man defensive line comprising Alexander Gonzalez, Mikel Villanueva, Jhon Chancellor, Ferraresi and Rosales.
5. Colombia ushering in a new era
Colombia manager Reinaldo Rueda is also likely to give youth a chance after leaving national team stalwarts Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez out of his squad.
Those expected to assume greater responsibility include Boca Juniors playmaker Edwin Cardona, Bournemouth’s ball-winning fulcrum Jefferson Lerma and Al-Hilal midfielder Gustavo Cuellar.
After disappointing results under Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz, Colombia look to have turned the corner since Rueda took charge in January.
6. Cavani-Suarez: A double act for the ages
Uruguay’s forward pairing of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez are both coming off superb seasons for their respective new clubs.
Cavani recovered from a slow start to his Manchester United career by scoring 17 goals in 39 appearances following his October 2020 move from Paris Saint-Germain. Suarez, who joined Atletico Madrid after he was unceremoniously released from Barcelona last September, netted 21 times for Los Colchoneros, helping them secure their 11th La Liga title.
Now is the time to savor these magnificent strikers who, at 34, are likely to be playing in their last Copa America.