Copa America begins with the first match between Uruguay and Peru.
Folks, brace yourself. This is going to be an edgy, entertaining, and intense Copa. The Andean countries coalescing around the passionate and vocal Bolivian president Evo Morales will be out to prove that they can win at sea level. FIFA under pressure from Brazil and Argentina have insisted that physiology is at the root of their ban of high altitude matches. Let me paraphrase it this way, the Andean countries gain an unfair advantage because of the height of their venues. Not so, counter the countries of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia which this ban affects directly. This ban is pure politics meant to rectify the dismal record of Argentina and Brazil at stratospheric La Paz and Quito. The soccer loving Morales is leading the charge in overturning the FIFA ban. A good showing at the Copa will weaken FIFA’s case. Morales will be an ubiquitous presence as he and Hugo Chavez are set to open the Copa together at San Cristobal as Bolivia and Venezuela meet each in the inaugural match.
Peru could be the country that benefits most from the edge given by the FIFA controversy because they also have the most talented squad amongst the Andean countries. Chelsea fans will be closely tracking the fortunes of Claudio Pizarro. Pizarro scored over 70 goals for Bayern before transferring to Chelsea ahead of next season. Apart from Pizarro, the Peruvian attack is bolsterd by PSV’s Jefferson Farfan and Hamburg’s Jose Guerrero.
Let me go out on a limb. Jefferson Farfan will be the player of this tournament. He is the Eredvisie’s premier striker along with Babel and Huntelaar and was a big reason for PSV Eindhoven pipping Ajax and AZ Alkmaar for the title. He is an exceptional talent and for those who saw the Gold Cup final he combines the blazing speed of Andres Guardado and dribbling abilities of Nery Castillo.
But any edge given by this controversy might be moot given the fact that the opposition is Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay who have combined to win 9 World Cups and 35 Copa America titles. The title will have to be prised loose from Argentina’s hand. A divided country will see Juan Roman Riquelme and Juan Sebastian Veron making their return to the national squad. Alfio Basile has reposed his faith for now in the ebb and flow that Argentine league returnees, Riquelme and Veron bring to their team that other Latin American countries like Colombia and Brazil have largely abandoned in favour of an up tempo and staccato style. For soccer purists there can be no artist quite like Riquelme, a true number 10, whose laconic play, belies one of the sharpest minds in the business. Boca’s success in the Copa Libertadores is inextricably linked to Riquelme’s performance. Veron has rehabilitated himself through his match play for Estudiantes.
Riquelme will be out to erase memories of the 2006 World Cup fiasco which led to his retirement from the international arena. The spotlight is on Riquelme because his selection means limited minutes for Carlos Tevez and Diego Milito, two of the brightest talents that the Albiceleste have at their disposal and those impatient with Basile’s choice of Riquelme (about half of Argentina) will have an axe to grind if he fails again. There is a big Inter connection with Mr Inter, Javier Zanetti leading four player from that club and possibly a fifth if Carlos Tevez has his way. For purveryors of Argentine talent, the fortunes of Fernando Gago, Leo Messi, Diego Milito, and Pablo Aimar will be closely followed. Leo Messi will go toe to toe with Farfan in goalscoring.
Argentina’s main rival is obviously Brazil which has been considerably weakened by no shows Kaka and Ronaldinho. Dunga has also overlooked Adriano and Ronaldo but they still have plenty of talent up front with Robinho, Vagner Love and Fred. Another player to watch out in both defense and down the right flank will be Sevilla’s Daniel Alves, who might be moving to Milan. His counterpart will be the dangerous Kleber, roving down the left with his speed and pinpoint crosses. For dead ball situations Brazil can rely on Arsenal’s Giberto Silva with his aerial talent and Werder Bremen’s Diego who brought them close to a Bundesliga title. Man Utd fans will be eagerly following their new transfer, attacking midfielder Anderson. Brazil contends with Mexico who are missing Borghetti and Guardado through injuries but still have the dangerous Nery Castillo. Ecuador and Chile are the other teams in the group. These two teams will contend for the second spot. Both are well matched in the midfield with La Tri led by Luis Valencia, Edwin Tenorio, and Edison Mendez (Arsenal fans will recognize him) and La Roja boasting Mark Gonzalez (ex- Liverpool), Matias Fernandez, and their number 10, Jorge Valdivia. The Ecuadorians have the edge through their tough veteran defense led by Neicer Reasco, Ivan Hurtado, Giovanny Espinoza, and Ulises De Cruz. The Chileans have an edge in attack through Humberto Suazo and Reinaldo Navia.
The US has a huge stake. Bob Bradley has started impressively with a 10-0-1 record but he will probably happily trade all of that if the US wins against Argentina. The US has brought a very young squad with only Jimmy Conrad, Kasey Keller, and Ben Olsen with substantial international exposure. Their work is cut out because they are in the toughest group with Argentina, Colombia, and Paraguay. The US might take heart through the fact that Colombia and Paraguay with undoubted talent are perennial underachievers. Colombia is rebuilding through Jorge Luis Pinto and they have had plenty of recent success against good teams like Ecuador and Chile. Pinto is revamping the Francisco Maturana days with his attack first mentality. He has Edixon Perea. Macnelly Torres, and Fabian Vargas to give Los Cafeteros an attacking dimension. However, the darkest horse is Paraguay. It has great talent in Roque Santa Cruz, Oscar Cardozo, and Salvador Cabanas on attack. But the Paraguayans have a challenge in defense with the retirement of key players Fernando Arce and Carlos Gamarra.
If there is a team that can go far it is Uruguay. They have Diego Forlan and Alvaro Recoba (who might be missing in the Peru opener because of injury). Man Utd fans will also be following Forlan who had a colourful but inconsistent career with the Red Devils. He has found his niche in Villareal and his form there has him linked to a return to the Premiership. Recoba’s pace down the left and his free kick prowess makes him most dangerous although he is less of a player because of his mental fragility. The Celeste have a solid defense led by Carlos Lugano and Carlos Diogo. They are also in the weakest group with Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela. The hosts have made rapid strides and they have star players like Juan Arango playing for Real Mallorca and Columbus Crew’s Alejandro Moreno but even having home field advantage may not be enough to take them to the next stage.
Group A: 1. Uruguay 2. Peru 3. Venezuela 4. Bolivia
Group B. 1.Brazil 2. Ecuador 3. Chile 4. Mexico
Group C. 1. Argentina 2. Colombia 3. Paraguay 4. USA
Players to watch: Jefferson Farfan, Leo Messi, Pablo Aimar, Fernando Gago, Diego Milito, Rodrigo Palacio, Salvador Cabanas, Nery Castillo, Matias Fernandez, Jonathan Bornstein, Benny Feilhaber, Justin Mapp, Humberto Suazo, Anderson, Claudio Pizarro, Diego Forlan, Alvaro Recoba, Carlos Diogo, Kleber, Robinho, Diego, Daniel Alves, Roque Santa Cruz, Julio Dos Santos, Juan Arango, Alejandro Moreno, Rodrigo Palacio, Jorge Valdivia, Felix Borja, Lee Nguyen.
Player of Copa America: Jefferson Farfan
Team USA will closely track Chicago Fire’s midfielder Justin Mapp, Chivas USA’s Sacha Kljestan, and PSV’s striker Lee Nguyen, players who potentially form the nucleus of the future MNT.
Premiership fans will focus on Claudio Pizarro and Anderson who Chelsea and Man Utd fans will see in action this coming season. Potential transfers could involve Diego Forlan and Diego Milito to Sunderland and Liverpool, respectively. Many Man Utd fans might track Nery Castillo who had a chance to play but could not obtain a work permit before moving onto Olympiakos.
On another interesting note, again involving Nery Castillo, if Uruguay and Mexico were to meet it would pit Mexican born Castillo who grew up in Uruguay and played for the domestic club Danubio. At one time three countries, Uruguay, Mexico, and Greece were vying for Castillo to play for their national squad. He finally chose Mexico over Greece.
Copa America begins with the first match between Uruguay and Peru.