The Copa América. El abuelo of international fútbol tournaments (like any good abuelo: old and stately, and given to times of mortifying embarrassment). So full of talent, so bursting with moments of grace, glory, grit, and goals that, one year, it was even held twice. The Copa América Centenario has, thus fair, failed to provide many such spectacular moments (come on – we’re counting on you for spectacle and joy, teams! We have no more Premier League, no more La Liga or Ligue 1, NO MORE CALCIO OR JOY IN OUR LIVES WITHOUT YOU!). So let us, calmly and with the greatest of gravitas, cast a look back at the moments that brought us to (what should be) this most momentous of Copas.
At the announcement that the Copa América Centenario would be held on CONCACAF ground, it was also declared that, rather than the previous twelve teams, this year’s tournament would field sixteen squads, meaning it’s time to get a jump-start on new rivalries. Teams that had just finished playing for their Gold Cups, their Confederation Cups, and various other tournaments none of us can keep straight (should I expect a response with a detailed list explaining all of the differences?) jumped back into their kits and started trying to qualify for this special edition of the Copa América.
When Panama beat Cuba in a decisive 4-0 rout, they earned themselves an invite to the Copa América for the first time in their nation’s history, and, as they have never played in a World Cup either, this could be the first time Los Canaleros win a major intercontinental tournament. (Or, if you like to keep your expectations slightly more manageable, this is the first time those of us outside Central America really get to judge…I mean, enjoy, the Panamanian team!)
Haiti’s Grenadiers beat neighbors Trinidad and Tobago to qualify to the Copa for the first time, only to be stuck with Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru in the group stage. The trauma of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake still lingers, with many of its players having scattered to international club teams, and the country still struggling to rebuild. They may have lost their opening match but, however they finish at the Copa América, Haiti’s path to the tournament has been impressive, with hardscrabble defenses, late winners, and young players learning to find each other on the pitch. Jozy Altidore, who plays for the U.S. squad but was born to Haitian parents, has organized locations around the island for Haitians to watch their team play. Bonne chance, Les Grenadiers!
1995 saw two CONCACAF rivals go head to head in a fierce quarterfinal battle. Before dos-a-cero, before the start of Major League Soccer, the likes of Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones, and Eric Wynalda came together to show South America what United States soccer and sartorialism was all about, making fútbol and hairstyle history. After taking down Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentina, a giddy United States team kept Mexico scoreless for the full ninety minutes, with a relatively unknown and untried (but subpar only in comparison to the hair-thletics of his teammates) Brad Friedel in goal to face El Tri on penalties. It would be the last time Friedel’s name or shiny pate would go unrecognized. Friedel blocked two shots, letting his teammates’ four unanswered penalties take the United States into the semifinals.
By now you’ve realized that the Copa América should rightfully be called the Copa South América Plus Some Central and North Americans Thrown In There To Round Things Out. This, however, would be altogether too confusing, and, as we’ve previously discussed, too long to properly hashtag (#addmorecharacters). The ten South American teams are automatically invited to participate; non-CONMEBOL teams are included at the behest of their southern neighbors and may choose to accept based on their wishes and schedules.
The Mexican national team, a CONCACAF member, have made the most appearances of any non-CONMEBOL team at the #CSAPSCNATITTRTO…yeah, that’ll never catch on. Okay fine, let’s try again: including this Copa América Centenario, Los Aztecas have participated in ten Copa América tournaments. There, much simpler. In each of Mexico’s appearances in Copa finals, they lost by a margin of just one goal, which was scored by their opponent (Argentina in 1993 and Colombia in 2001) during the final twenty-five minutes of the match. Who knows what this tenth appearance will bring … besides agony for Uruguay fans, sigh.
A win by Mexico wouldn’t be all that shocking, but don’t place your bets too soon: the Copa América is no stranger to surprises, as Bolivia proved during their second round as hosts in 1997. The dizzying heights of the Andes are said to level the playing field, and the ten CONMEBOL nations, plus invitees Costa Rica and Mexico, were sent bouncing from Sucre’s Estadio Olímpico Patria at just over 9,000 feet above sea level to La Paz’s Estadio Hernando Siles at just under 12,000 feet. The latter was subject to a temporary ban by FIFA in 2007, who ruled the altitude gave the Bolivian team an unfair advantage over visitors unused to such lofty heights. Whatever the reason, 1997 saw Bolivia, helmed by former MLS star Marco Etcheverry, knock team after team off their pedestals, finishing runners-up behind a Brazil stacked with Ronaldo, pre-coach-Dunga, Romário, Ze Roberto, and Denilson.
In 2001 the Copa América played host to one of the biggest shocks in world footballing history. Reflecting the South American socio-political climate, host nation Colombia scrambled to guarantee the safety of participating teams and ensure a full roster to fill the lineup of matches. A worried CONMEBOL initially canceled the tournament amid concerns of possible terrorist threats, leading to the Canadian team’s return home to North America.
When the tournament was reinstated five days later, with extra safety measures in place, Costa Rica had replaced Canada, but the Argentine Football Association now claimed members of their squad had received death threats, and refused to allow their team to participate. A day before the tournament was set to start, Colombia invited Honduras. The team was flown in by the Colombian Air Force, and trained on Colombian soil just hours before they kicked off their first match. Having arrived with just enough players to round out a full eleven-man squad, the CONCACAF side surprised both their opponents and themselves, eliminating none other than Brazil in the quarter-finals and finishing in third place. Honduran superstar Amado Guevara (shout out to the Metrostars!) was named best player of the tournament.
Despite the pre-Copa América meetings between confederation leaders, the supposed threats and concerns, there were no reported incidents of violence or unrest during the tournament. Host nation Colombia went on to win the Copa América for the first and only time that year, with Victor Arisztisábal scoring the most goals over the course of the tournament and Colombian team captain Iván Córdoba scoring the only goal over Mexico in the final to bring los Cafeteros the (venti) cup.
Have you done the math yet and realized we’ve yet to discuss four South American teams? Well, stop counting, it’s making me nervous. In their past three Copa América appearances, Peru have stood out from the dense crop of talent that surrounds it, largely due to one player, who’s already earned them a crucial win this summer: Paolo Guerrero.
While I still plead with you to stop doing math, I do encourage you to brush up on your Spanish: “Guerrero” means “warrior”, and Paolo has certainly lived up to the name. Peru’s forward, who also leads Brazil’s Flamengo into battle, has now scored in his last four Copa Américas, claiming the tournament’s leading scorer roles in both 2011 and 2015 while leading Los Incas to third-place finishes. Having already knocked off Haiti, Peru will be looking to Guerrero to do what he does best … but against South American neighbors Brazil and Ecuador.
It is exactly when these tough South American teams take the field with charged histories and nothing to lose that they can suddenly shock with ferocity or genius. Such squads, languishing at the bottom of their continental tables, have more to fight for than silverware; it is during these tournaments when you find individual player looking to shine or make a permanent place for themselves, coaches seeking to establish rapport, or captains to garner support or national encouragement.
Ecuador enters Group B tied for the top in the challenging CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, so the goal is to equal or better their 1993 tournament, the only time they made it to the semifinals. Two-time winners Paraguay have not hoisted silverware or been to a tournament final since 1979, but finished fourth at last year’s Copa América and are bringing a deep squad to their supposed Group of Death (though, is Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay really a deadly group, or is Twitter getting all riled up over nothing? How do we feel about this, Twitter??). And Venezuela, who barely missed out on qualifying for the 2014 World Cup., might be on a mission in making up for national pride. They’ve got a new coach and are looking to prove their first semifinal appearance, in 2011, was not just a fluke.
Still missing the Premier League after all this anticipation? Breathe deep, Leicester fans and those who love them (even my grandfather now knows who Claudio Ranieri is, though he can’t tell you which team I support); Wes Morgan is meant to be back, now in Copa América form. If he can recover from “too much partying” he may bring some of that Foxes magic to the Reggae Boyz; Captain Morgan and his Jamaican squad will be playing in just their second Copa América, after leaving, winless, in the group stage of last year’s tournament after a series of 1-0 losses to Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Without Morgan, Jamaica have already fallen, again 1-0 – this time to a Venezuela team that hadn’t even looked good in recent years. Mexico are up next after which Jamaica will face Uruguay again, without an injured Luis Suárez. With their talismanic captain on a white-hot run of his own, maybe this is the team that could make Group C interesting? Or perhaps that quota’s already been met, what with the Jamaica coach getting himself sent off in the first match?
The soccer hasn’t been great so far, but there’s still time for memorable goals, bust-ups, and perhaps more anthem mixups. So it’s time to take out your (summerweight) scarf and drape yourself in your team colors. Practice your anthems (double-check for accuracy) and your best team songs. Prepare yourself a mate when Argentina and Uruguay take the field, or mix up a pitcher of caipirinhas when Brazil’s players are on the pitch. Or, if you’re feeling both patriotic and in a sharing kind of mood, whip up some cake in red, white, and blue. A piece would really help us celebrate this 100th Copa América, taking place for the first time on American soil and beaming in to a TV set near you (we hope).
Wondering where Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay are? Curious as to why Cookie Monster’s been popping up on our social media? Click here for Part 1 of Copa America’s Greatest Hits.