Can Latin football do the victory march?

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Under pressure Brazil’s Neymar and Argentina’s Messi have to hold on to their respective team’s expectations.
Under pressure Brazil’s Neymar and Argentina’s Messi have to hold on to their respective team’s expectations.

Exactly a year on from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where the very identity of Latin-American football was buried at the feet of Christ, the Redeemer, the power houses of the beautiful game in the continent are set to lock horns in the Copa America tournament to see which of the also-rans in the World Cup are better among their peers. Despite some good performances by the Latin Americans in the last World Cup, it was eventually the Germans who had lifted the trophy.

In a place where football is a passion and a way of life, the Copa America is Latin America’s biggest football carnival and boasts of producing some of the greatest footballers — Pele, Diego Maradona, Rene Higuita, Garrincha, Socrates, Enzo Franciscoli, Ronaldinhio (to name a few) to today’s Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.

Latin American teams have always played the game with a unique kind of style. Their short passes, quick dribbles and third-man runs made Pele refer football as the ‘beautiful game’. Football is seen as an art and the players are artists who draw the most vivid pictures on the ‘green canvas.’ Everyone remembers Brazilian team of the 1982 World Cup. Tales of their glories have entered folklore despite the team faring badly in the competition. Yet, Socrates, Zico, Falcao, Eder, Junior and Tostao are still worshipped as Gods in their homeland.

The 44th edition of Copa America will start in Chile on 11 June. It is the seventh time Chile is hosting the tournament. Ten teams from Latin America and the two invited teams from the CONCACAF region, Mexico and Jamaica, will fight to claim the famous old trophy, currently held by Uruguay. Unlike every other edition, this time there are no clear favourites. However, the football pundits have picked Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia as the likeliest of winners. Hosts Chile could end up being the dark horse.

The twelve teams are divided into three groups. The top two teams from each group will directly reach the quarterfinals along with the two best third placed teams.

Group A consists of Chile, Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia. Host Chile and Mexico have the best chance to qualify for the next round. Chile had a good outing at the last World Cup. They reached the pre-quarters in Brazil but lost to Brazil in a penalty shootout. This time, Alexis Sanchez will lead the attack for Chile with the likes of Arturo Vidal, Eduardo Vargas, Gary Medel and Mauricio Isla to back him. Mexico is the other team that has the best chances to qualify for the quarterfinal. They have a very good squad of young and talented players. Ecuador and Bolivia could, however, spring a surprise for these two teams (Chile and Mexico) if they are not careful. Ecuador might even qualify for the next round as best third placed team but it will depend on their performance.

World Cup runners up Argentina, defending champions Uruguay, former champions Paraguay and guest team Jamaica have been placed in Group B. Argentina, under Barcelona star Lionel Messi and Edinson Cavani-led Uruguay will be hoping to not just get past the first round but to lift the trophy. From this group, Argentina and Uruguay will qualify for the next round. The tournament could be set alight when Argentina take on Uruguay as two of the most prolific strikers in the world will come face-toface when they meet and both teams will be looking to secure a win and top spot in the group to avoid the probability of facing Brazil in the quarterfinals.

Group C consists of Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. Brazil, under new coach Dunga has been in all-conquering form since their World Cup semifinal thrashing at the hands of Germany. In Neymar, they have the most exciting young player in the world leading the line and the likes of Willian, Firmino and Anderson will be hoping to play their part in providing support to the Barcelona man. Colombia, on their day, can get the better of any team in the world and James Rodriguez will be looking to carry the same form in the tournament like in Brazil which saw him clinch the Golden Boot for being the highest goal scorer. Peru and Venezuela, will have to play their heart out if they are to have any chance of qualifying for the next round.

One of the attractions to lookout for at this year’s tournament will be the attacking prowess of Barcelona teammates Lionel Messi and Neymar. They have played a crucial role for Barcelona to win the La Liga title along with Luis Suarez. Scoring and assisting each other for their club, they now have to face each other for their respective countries. Messi is still at top with 56 goals and 20 assists in all competition for the club, followed by Neymar with 37 goals and 7 assists.

Their countries also heavily depend on them. Messi was the star for Argentina in their World Cup campaign. He was tremendous on the field and managed to drag an average Argentina team to the final. He also won the Golden Ball for the best player of the tournament. It is the same with Brazil, who are reliant on Neymar to a large extent. Their dismal performance in the World Cup semifinal shows how much they depended on him. This time, they will be under pressure to set things right with their fans — they owe it to them.

Other than Messi and Neymar, James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao of Colombia, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal of Chile, Angel Di Maria of Argentina, Edinson Cavani of Uruguay are players to watch out for in this edition of Copa America.

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