For a second straight summer, a massive international prize is on the line in South America, and even though it may not carry the weight of the World Cup, the 2015 Copa America features plenty of star power and a winner's medal that includes a ticket to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Days after winning the Champions League together, two-thirds of Barcelona's record-setting front line–Lionel Messi and Neymar–will be on display as adversaries (the third member, Uruguay's Luis Suárez, is still banned internationally for his World Cup bite of Giorgio Chiellini); Brazil puts its undefeated mark under Dunga (this time around, anyway) on the line in its first meaningful games since last summer's disappointment on home soil; host Chile and Colombia aim to build on the success they enjoyed last summer; and a series of upstarts look to spring surprises in what promises to be an intense 12-team competition.
Jonathan Wilson and James Young are on the ground in Chile, and here are some of their games, story lines and other items to watch over the next three-plus weeks:
Group games to watch
WILSON: Argentina vs. Paraguay– Gerardo Martino’s side will start its tournament against the side that Martino led to the final four years ago; back then, he created a stubborn, cussed Paraguay–his Argentina, presumably, will look to be more expansive.
Argentina vs. Uruguay – It’s the oldest rivalry on the continent, between the two most successful sides in the history of the competition (Uruguay has won it 15 times; Argentina 14), and Argentina will be out to avenge its quarterfinal defeat to Uruguay at home four years ago.
Brazil vs. Colombia – When they met in the World Cup quarterfinals last year, it was a brutal affair that culminated in Neymar fracturing two vertebrae.
Of the 54 fouls in the game, though, 33 were committed by Brazil–it was the hosts' cynical fouling and targeting of James Rodriguez that set the tone.
YOUNG: Chile vs. Ecuador – it’s always special when the host nation kicks off a tournament, and Chile is no ordinary host. Given what came later, many forget how close Jorge Sampaoli’s men came to knocking out Brazil at last year’s World Cup when Mauricio Pinilla’s shot thundered off the bar with seconds to spare in the round-of-16 game between the sides, and this is a team on an upward curve. If the players can cope with the pressure, Chile’s all-action style could get an extra adrenaline boost from pumped-up fans desperate for glory on home turf.
Brazil vs. Peru – Perhaps not the most enticing matchup on paper, but this will be Dunga’s first competitive game in charge of the national team since losing the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal to the Netherlands, and the Seleção’s first meaningful fixture since that harrowing defeat by Germany last July. A 0-0 draw with Venezuela in Brazil’s opener at the last Copa America in 2011 set the tone for a dismal campaign. The pressure will be on Dunga to deliver a better performance this time around–and spread a little ointment on those World Cup scars.
Mexico vs. Ecuador – With eight out of 12 teams moving on to the knockout stages, progressing beyond the group stage at the Copa America is possibly not the most daunting challenge in world soccer. Nonetheless, this game has the look of a decisive fixture about it, even if El Tri is apparently once again focusing its attention on the Gold Cup. Both these sides had their moments at the World Cup, but, assuming Chile wins the group, it isn’t hard to imagine the loser of this game going home earlier than planned.
Who advances? Who wins it all?
WILSON: With only four of the 12 teams eliminated after the group stage, for the big guns, the early games are really just about finding form and fine-tuning preparations that for Argentina and to a lesser extent Brazil were hampered by the Champions League final. There seem four obvious contenders to win the tournament – Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia – with the champions, Uruguay, a little way behind. All five, surely, will go through.
Mexico, having made clear it is prioritizing the Gold Cup, and so may be challenged by Ecuador and an improving Bolivia, but with two third-place sides to advance should make it, probably with the Ecuadoreans.
Jamaica is the weakest side there, which may give Paraguay an edge in the battle for the other best third-place slot against Peru and Venezuela.
As to the overall winners, Chile may be scuppered by doubts over Arturo Vidal’s form and Eduardo Vargas’s fitness, while Argentina and Colombia both have squads that are unbalanced in favor of the forward line.
That leaves Dunga’s Brazil, bristling with the desire to put right what went wrong last year, and with just the sort of pragmatic manager to make it happen.
YOUNG: It’s tempting to say that the Copa America will carry on from where last year’s World Cup left off. Back then Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia were the pick of the Latin American bunch, and there seems little reason to suggest much has changed 12 months on. All four could possibly win it.
Home support could ramp up Chile's high intensity game another notch; Brazil has been sturdily impressive since Dunga took over; and the addition of Radamel Falcao (despite his struggles with Manchester United) to the squad that looked so impressive in Brazil, plus Carlos Bacca’s form for Sevilla, will surely only make Colombia stronger.
Nonetheless, Argentina’s wealth of attacking talent, plus a certain Mr. Messi, probably makes Gerardo Martino’s men the favorites.
Others expected to progress to the quarterfinals: Ecuador, Uruguay as group runners-up; Paraguay and Mexico as the top third-place finishers.
Who will surprise (for better or for worse)?
WILSON: Having just said I don’t think they’ll go through, this may seem contradictory, but Bolivia is improving under Mauricio Soria, who has embraced a hard-pressing Bielsista philosophy, a radical change from the sit-deep-and-weather-the-storm approach of so many Bolivia sides of the recent past.
That’s a gamble, but even in the absence of the captain Ronald Raldes, it’s one that may unsettle opponents. Or it may lead to a string of heavy defeats; at least, though, it should be more fun to watch than Bolivia has often been.
YOUNG: Uruguay could arguably do both. An overhaul of the side that lost to Colombia at the World Cup has seen a number of promising young players come in, and friendly results have been encouraging, giving Oscar Tabarez’s side the look of intriguing outsiders. That said, Uruguay’s rich history means the bar is set high–and Brazil or Colombia are potential quarterfinal opponents.
Who scores more goals, Messi or Neymar?
WILSON: Even under Dunga, Brazil is set up to play through Neymar, with Roberto Firmino (assuming he is selected at center-forward), there essentially to act as a decoy for the Barcelona forward. With Argentina, although Messi is clearly the focal point, there are far more attacking options, and he may spend much of the tournament operating either on the flank or between midfield and attack. For that reason, Neymar should score more.
YOUNG: The prince vs. the king of the Camp Nou is perhaps this tournament’s highest profile subplot, and their progress through the competition will make for gripping viewing. Messi’s club form means equally shimmering miracles are expected when he puts on an Argentina shirt, while the pressure on Neymar is different. He has no one along the lines of a Sergio Aguero, an Angel Di Maria or a Carlos Tevez with whom to share the attacking burden.
As at the World Cup, the weight of a nation will rest on his skinny shoulders.
For that same reason, then, expect Neymar to outscore Messi, who can afford to share the goals around more.
How will Mexico fare?
WILSON: Miguel Herrera has made it very clear that he sees the Gold Cup as the priority, and with half a dozen top-choice players missing (Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Carlos Vela; defenders Miguel Layun and Diego Reyes; midfielders Giovani Dos Santos, Jonathan Dos Santos, Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera; and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa among them), the key really is to avoid the embarrassment of four years ago when an Under-23 side lost all three group games.
The quarterfinals are probably the limit of El Tri's ambitions.
YOUNG: If Mexico is ever in the market for a new soccer anthem, 1990s alternative rockers Pavement’s “Here” might get the nod. Given the country’s obsession with the sport, the line “I was dressed for success, but success it never comes” neatly encapsulates the air of underachievement that often surrounds El Tri.
This tournament looks to be no exception, especially as the team has once again decided to focus on the Gold Cup, meaning a number of Miguel Herrera’s Europe-based stars will be missing in Chile.
Herrera says he believes his team can reach the final, but he may be the only one: Mexico has looked unconvincing in recent friendlies, notably in a limp defeat to a Neymar-less Brazil in São Paulo on Sunday. On a positive note, a young squad will at least mean a chance for a number of promising young players, such as Twente forward Jesus Corona and Chivas Guadalajara defender Carlos Sacedo.