THE Nations League finals will attract plenty of attention on these shores this summer, but the competition I’m eagerly awaiting is the Copa America.
The oldest international tournament kicks off in Brazil on June 14. Indeed, the Copa America, run by the South American confederation CONMEBOL, will take centre stage for little shy of a month, culminating in the final on July 7 in Rio de Janeiro.
The first South American Championship was won by Uruguay in 1916 and they have been the most successful team in the tournament’s history, winning 15 times. Neighbours Argentina have 14 successes to their name. Back your fancy with omegatipsters.
The Selecao of Brazil have rarely dominated the event, apart from victories in 1997, 1999, 2004 and 2007. They have won eight titles in total and their first four were all on home soil. Maybe this could be an omen for the summer.
Other winners to interrupt the heavyweights are Peru, who won in 1939 and 1975, Paraguay in 1953 and 1979, the altitude-dwellers Bolivia in 1963, Colombia in 2001 and, lest we forget, the last two titles were won by the ‘golden generation’ of Chile in 2015 and the Centenario in the USA in 2016.
Both victories were on penalties against Argentina after hard-fought goalless draws.
The most appearances in the final goes to Argentina with 28. They’ve also scored the most goals in the competition’s history, registering 455.
Ecuador, at the other end of the scale, have conceded the most, leaking 311. Most overall wins goes to Argentina with 129 and Chile hold the most losses with 82.
To give the Copa America added spice, guest countries have been invited to participate. They are generally from the CONCACAF region, but not this time.
This year’s guests are Qatar and Japan, who faced each other in the Asian Cup final at the beginning of February.
There will be three groups of four, with the winners and runners-up from each group going through to the quarter-finals along with the two best third-placed sides.
It’s hard to decipher a definitive favourite for this year’s Copa, because many of the South American sides are in a transitional/rebuilding phase.
Argentina had a controversy-laden World Cup and currently don’t know their best eleven.
Talented players like Giovani Lo Celso, 23, and Nicolas Tagliafico, 26, are showing shades of being part of a new generation.
Up front, will Lionel Messi have a last pop at long overdue international glory? Will the likes of Sergio Aguero, and Paulo Dybala join him or are Mauro Icardi, Lautaro Martinez and Watford’s Roberto Pereyra going to get a chance?
With Brazil, there is no telling if home advantage will be a blessing or a curse. They will, of course, be desperate to put their 2014 World Cup disappointment on home soil behind them.
Will Neymar dominate the headlines for the right or wrong reasons?
Can the ageing Selecao navigate a success because, with the exceptions of Arthur and Richarlison, there’s not much to shout about coming through the ranks?
Uruguay are, personally, my favourites to win. They have strength within most areas, even though many of their players are knocking on.
They’ve got the likes of Fernando Muslera, Diego Godin, Martin Caceres, Jose Gimenez, Rodrigo Bentancur and, obviously, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front.
Then you have Diego Laxalt, Gaston Ramirez and ex-Middlesbrough striker Cristhian Stuani (who has shone for lowly Girona in La Liga this season) all to add depth. They have Group C to navigate with Chile, Ecuador and Japan.
Group A consists of hosts Brazil, Bolivia, the vibrant Peruvians and the promising looking youngsters of Venezuela.
Group B houses Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay and Qatar. This looks to be the most fascinating group.
Qatar were big underdogs at the Asian Cup hosted in the UAE, but they not only won the competition, they did it with room to spare. They have talented youngsters who have played through the age-groups together, which has built solidity and continuity.
Akram Afif, 22, weighed in with ten assists at the Asian Cup with Almoez Ali, also 22, netting nine goals (an Asian Cup record). He not only received the golden-boot and admiring glances from clubs around the world, but he was also sent a signed Barcelona shirt by one Lionel Messi.
Messi and Ali could be on opposing front-lines in the Argentina v Qatar clash on June 23 in Porto Alegre.
From the opening game between Brazil and Bolivia in Sao Paulo to the final less than a month later, it promises to be one high-octane thrill-ride.
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