Copa America not Brazil's top priority, both on field and at home
With organizers hoping to sell around two million tickets and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann stating that “the goal is to get to the final four” in what he describes as “the biggest tournament since the 1994 World Cup in the United States,” there can be no doubting the host nation’s excitement for the Copa America Centenario.
There will be a similar desire to do well among the players and coaches of other South American big-hitters such as Uruguay and Ecuador, the current leaders of the continent’s 2018 World Cup qualifying tournament; and Argentina, for whom the competition represents perhaps the last chance for its golden generation of Messi, Mascherano & Co. to lift some silverware. All will bring largely full-strength squads to the Copa America.
In Brazil, however, it is a rather different story. With much of the attention of the country’s soccer community focused on grabbing a much-coveted gold medal at the upcoming Rio Olympics, the only major honor Brazil has never won–not to mention a host of other enthusiasm-dampening on- and off-field factors–the Copa America has assumed distinctly secondary importance for the world’s most storied soccer nation.
“Brazil has never really valued the Copa America. If they win (the tournament), you won’t see anyone celebrating in the streets. Brazilians like the World Cup more,” said Juca Kfouri, one of the country’s leading sportswriters. “The Olympics are the priority this summer. It’s the medal that we’re missing. So winning it would be important.”
The calendar congestion as a result of Copa America and the Olympics, which begin at the start of August, has already cost Brazil its one genuine world-class talent. Aafter Barcelona dug in its heels and insisted that star forward Neymar, who has played summer tournaments in each of the last four off-seasons, could only feature in one international competition this year, his place in the Copa was marginalized.
Faced with a choice between the possibility of claiming a morale-boosting Olympic gold on home soil and Copa America glory in distant New Jersey, Brazil has plumped for the former, meaning Neymar will miss out on the trip to the U.S., along with the injured Douglas Costa (and his replacement, Kaká) and a number of out-of-favor stars such as David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Oscar and Roberto Firmino.
Instead Brazil will bring a relatively young squad to Copa America, including Internacional goalkeeper Alisson, Atletico Mineiro fullback Douglas Santos and, intriguingly, Santos’s talented 19-year-old striker Gabriel, or “Gabigol.” Despite his lack of experience, the latter is arguably already a more enticing prospect up front than Dunga’s other current alternatives, the underwhelming Jonas of Benfica and the inconsistent Hulk. He scored in his senior-team debut against Panama last Friday.
Part of the reason behind calling up the youngsters is to give them experience for both the Olympics (“It’s my biggest dream...for the competition, the venue, to play alongside Neymar,” Gabriel has said of the Rio tournament) and for the longer-term future.
“We want to see these players together, to see what they can produce,” said Dunga.
That Dunga is experimenting at all, of course, at least partly reflects the unconvincing nature of his time in charge.
Since returning to the job in the aftermath of that harrowing 7-1 defeat by Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal, the coach, who is deeply unpopular among Brazil fans, has overseen a dismal performance at last year’s Copa America in Chile, when the Seleção were rudely elbowed out of the tournament by Paraguay, and a limp 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, where Brazil sits a lowly sixth after six games.
It could be much worse–without an injury-time equalizer from Dani Alves against Paraguay in Asuncion in March, Dunga’s troops would be fourth from the bottom of the 10-team group.
The result is that almost two years into the job, the under-fire manager is still scratching around for answers, notably up front, where a host of candidates for the striker’s job–including Diego Tardelli, Luiz Adriano, Robinho, Firmino and veteran Ricardo Oliveira (another who will miss the Copa America through injury), have all come and gone.
With the white-hot heat of the grueling, 18-game World Cup qualifying tournament (itself obviously a greater priority than the Copa America) is no place to experiment, it is perhaps not surprising that Dunga sees the U.S. tournament as a good place to blood new talent.
As if the Olympic behemoth and Dunga’s woes were not enough, however, a number of other factors have served to relegate the Copa America to barely a dot on Brazil’s soccer radar.
One is the hard-to-shake feeling in South America that this Copa America, coming so soon after last year’s tournament in Chile, represents a somewhat contrived event, hastily cobbled together to cash in on the competition’s 100th birthday.
“For Brazil, and probably for a lot of South America, the real Copa America was last year in Chile. This tournament feels like it was organized by the U.S., for the U.S.,” says Tostão, a key member of Brazil’s legendary 1970 World Cup-winning squad and considered one of the finest players to ever don the famous canary yellow shirt.
The Copa America Centenario has been further tarnished, according to Tostão, by the landscape of widespread corruption from which it emerged. After all, just a few months ago the very existence of the tournament was in doubt following the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into soccer bribery and corruption that toppled a number of senior soccer executives across the Americas.
“The Copa America has been stained by the corruption involving the CONMEBOL and CONCACAF directors,” says Tostão. “The corruption has sullied football across the continent.”
And while it is perhaps easier for fans in the U.S. to believe that the graft that riddles the game’s organizing bodies may soon be eradicated and to simply sit down and enjoy the soccer, in Brazil the culture of corruption is rather more endemic, and its demoralizing effects on the population more pervasive.
With the country suffering through a deepening recession, recent months have seen dozens of leading politicians and business leaders implicated in a billion dollar bribes scandal at the country’s state-run oil company, while millions of Brazilians have taken to the street in political protests. At the same time, the nation’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has been suspended while she awaits trial for impeachment–a process that has sparked bitter political rivalries across the country.
The toxic political climate is reflected in Brazilian soccer. Fearing arrest, the current president of the CBF (the Brazilian FA), Marco Polo Del Nero, has not left Brazil since his predecessor, Jose Maria Marin, was arrested in Zurich in the first FBI swoop against corrupt soccer administrators in May 2015.
“Of all the corrupt symbols in Brazil, the CBF is the most corrupt of all,” Kfouri said.
And the multiple crises affecting Brazil have further diminished the importance of the Copa America among Brazilians, argues Tostão.
“People are worried about what’s happening in Brazil,” he says. “They’re paying attention to the political crisis, and unemployment is very high. People are more worried about their own lives than soccer.”
None of which is to say that Brazil will not tune in once the Copa America kicks off on Friday, or that Dunga and his players will not give their all to try and win the competition.
“Dunga is taking it seriously,” Kfouri said. “He wants to win, he’s won it before and he knows how important it is for him.”
But overshadowed by the Olympics and the World Cup qualifiers, and with more pressing matters affecting enthusiasm back home, it is clear that the Copa America Centenario is not atop the list of priorities for Brazil’s soccer community–nor its fans.