30 June 2011

Copa America 2011: tournament preview

My tournament preview for STV

Joseph Sexton gives you the lowdown on the 43rd South American championship. 

Gonzalo Higuain will be hoping to make his mark for Argentina. Pic: © Reuters

Just days before the 43rd Copa América kicks off in Argentina, we were treated to ugly scenes in Buenos Aires as the unthinkable happened: River Plate- the Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United rolled into one of this football crazy nation- were relegated to the Nacional B, Argentina’s second tier, for the first time in their history.

Hundreds of hooligans, the notorious barras bravas, rioted as their demotion was confirmed, using the seating of the Monumental stadium as missiles and fighting running battles with police outside the ground. This is the dark side of football in Argentina, whose domestic game is plagued by fan violence and these images were beamed across the planet.

Don’t let this fool you, however; Copa América 2011 looks set to be a festival of a football, and a fantastic tournament for those fans watching around the world or lucky enough to be there in the flesh.

Football violence in Argentina is strictly a domestic affair, largely between rivals of the bigger Buenos Aires sides but also internecine amongst groups within each particular team’s support. Rivalries are set aside when it comes to watching the albiceleste however; the national team unites all supporters behind the same banner.

One of the most interesting things about this year’s Copa América- and we’ll come to the football itself in a moment- is the AFA’s laudable decision to take the tournament to the country, to the far-flung provinces. Football, like the country as a whole, has traditionally been a highly centralised affair with not just River and Boca, but also clubs like Velez Sársfield, Independiente, Racing Club, San Lorenzo, Argentinos Juniors, Hurácan and others from the capital mainstays in the top-flight and the battles for local and continental honours. This is hardly surprising, given that more than a third of Argentina’s 41m population lives in the greater Buenos Aires area. And yet in this year’s tournament only one game will be played in the capital; the final, on July 24th, at the Monumental.

This is to applauded.

Instead this year’s Copa will be spread out across this vast country. Only Córdoba in the centre, the country’s second largest urban centre, could be deemed a major city. Many are not even home to top flight football clubs; neighbouring Jujuy and Salta- in the far away northwestern corner are much closer to La Paz and Asunción than Buenos Aires, and only marginally less further from the Peruvian capital, Lima- both fit into this category.

Further to the south, another two neighbours along the Chilean frontier, Mendoza and San Juan- the former home to Godoy Cruz, one of the most successful provincial sides of recent years- will also host games. The only two cities within striking distance of the capital with that honour are Santa Fé and La Plata, the latter home to the 2009 Libertadores cup winners, Estudiantes. As the traditional big guns struggle, this decision should help further the spread the footballing power beyond the capital.

Of course, most readers here will be watching the games on satellite but there is still plenty for them to delight in. Argentina have named their strongest possible squad, and will be going all out to win this one on home turf. They boast an an attack to die for, including double Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi. So strong, indeed, is there attack that it looked likely until a couple of weeks ago that Carlos Tévez would miss the cut. The midfield also contains more bite and creativity than it did at the World Cup, where they were completely over run in the centre by Germany.

Brazil are at a more transitional stage of their development, but words like ‘transition’ are relative in this context. Up front they boast the current poster boy of South American football, Neymar; fresh from his mesmerising display as Santos claimed the Libertadores last week, he’ll be joined in the starting XI by Milan duo Alexandre Pato and Robinho.

The latter may have disappointed at Manchester City, and has blown hot and cold in Europe at club level over the years, but he always brings his A game for the seleçao. Providing the bullets will be Neymar’s club team-mate, Paulo Henrique Ganso, a clever technician with home the forward has an almost telepathic understanding. With a much more creative midfield and a backline that- both in the starting XI and reserve- no side in international football even comes close to, they would appear to have all the ingredients needed to win their fifth Copa América from the last six contested.

Uruguay were a revelation at last year’s World Cup, after struggling to make it to the finals. With Edinson Cavani on fire, and Luís Suárez carrying on where he left off at Ajax in the Premier League, they have a potentially lethal attack wedded to their overall solidity. And if they might have upset some neutrals last summer in the manner of their victory over Ghana last summer, few teams got the pulses racing of those same neutrals than swashbuckling Chile.

Chile have recently endured a change of coach, with the popular and attack-minded Argentine Marcelo Bielsa stepping down in February, but they have got a stronger squad in place this time round and should add some extra defensive solidity under Claudio Borghi. And that’s not forgetting the emergence of Alexis Sánchez, who is now a truly world class talent.

Though many in Europe rank Uruguay as the best equipped outsider to win (and this would put them back ahead of Argentina as the most successful team in the competition’s history), my feeling is that Chile will present the biggest threat to Brazil and Argentina. At any rate, both look likely to occupy the top two slots in their group, leaving them with an excellent chance of pushing on to make the semi finals.

Paraguay remain solid, and excelled to reach their first-ever world cup quarter final in South Africa, but are carrying some old legs within the squad and lack the same degree of firepower as the two sides in Group C. They will surely follow Brazil out of their group, and their dogged, obdurate nature will make them a tough outfit to break down.

It is difficult to say what we can expect from Mexico in Group C. Having decided to travel with a largely under-23 squad, they had five of their players suspended three weeks ago for testing positive to a banned substance. Then on Monday, amidst celebrations following the senior side’s remarkable comeback last Saturday to claim the CONCACAF Gold Cup against the USA, a further eight of the Copa squad were suspended by their federation for breaking a curfew and brining ladies of the night to the team hotel; including more than one of the overage players selected. With Peru in rag order, you would still have to rate their chances of getting through as one of the better ranked sides finishing third.

Back in Argentina’s group, Colombia look good to claim second place. Remarkably, for a side featuring FC Porto’s prolific Rademal Falcão, they have struggled for goals in recent years. They will have to find a way to better make use of his goal threat if they are to make any headway at the business end of this year’s competition.

So although many will rightly have Argentina and Brazil as their favourites, they aren’t going to have it all their own way. The pressure on Argentina will be immense, both as hosts and also given their 18 year drought at senior level.

Brazil, some argue, may lack the steel of that formidable Dunga side; who were, in objective, results-based terms a match for Spain in last four year World Cup cycle. As unloved as that side was by some for their counter-attacking style, it took a spectacularly uncharacteristic self-implosion for them to throw it away against Holland in that quarter final last june. Such has been the overall rise in the standard of the continent’s less-heralded sides over the past decade and a half, neither can afford to be at anything but their best if we are to see the final that most are predicting.

What we have kicking off with the host’s encounter with Bolivia in La Plata has the makings of a pure footballing pageant. Argentina has the greatest and loudest supporter culture of any country on the continent, full of song, colour and drama. With the violence and ugliness pushed to the sidelines for the next three weeks, everything in place for us to have a Copa América to remember.

No comments: