By Rwany Sibaja, Guest Contributor
Last Friday, June 3rd, the United States Men’s National Team faced Colombia in the opening match of the 2016 Copa América at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. This is a special edition of the tournament – the “Centenario” – commemorating the 100th anniversary of the world’s oldest continental soccer competition. Some observers have qualified this off-year Copa America as a “gimmick” meant to increase the coffers of the co-organizers, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF (South and North America’s soccer federations, respectively), or as a fake Copa America. After all, the last one took place just last year, in Chile, with the next “official” edition set for 2019. Moreover, this is the first time that Copa America has been held outside of South America, adding to the sense of an amusing spectacle rather than a true competition. [CONCACAF, it should be noted, organizes its own continental tournament: the Gold Cup.]
Why, then, should audiences in the United States care about this Copa America? For soccer fans, the stars will be out in full force across the United States. Lionel Messi, “Chicharito” Hernández, Luis Suárez, Alexis Sánchez, James Rodriguez, Arturo Vidal, and Clint Dempsey (among others) are prominent features in promotional materials. Several key players, however, will miss the tournament, most notably Brazil’s Neymar (reserved for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games), Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas (injury), and US striker Jozy Altidore (injury).
Copa América is also a generational moment for US soccer fans, many of whom are too young to remember the USA 1994 FIFA World Cup. Although the general consensus is that FIFA – the world’s governing body for soccer – will award the 2026 World Cup to the U.S., or approve a joint bid with either Canada or Mexico, the selection process has barely started.
As a sports historian, it is easy to be intrigued by a milestone tournament. Besides the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, few international sports competitions have reached the centennial mark. The first men’s soccer tournament at the Olympic Games began in 1900, but with only three club teams representing their nation. It wasn’t until 1924 that FIFA began to organize the men’s tournament at the Games. Intent on including professional players who were barred by the International Olympic Committee, in a quest to preserve the “amateur spirit” of the Games, FIFA initiated its own World Cup tournament in 1930, held in Uruguay and won by the host nation. The upcoming 2016 UEFA European championship – perhaps the most watched continental soccer tournament – is relatively new by comparison, only beginning in 1960.
There is something else at play in this centennial Copa América. The original impetus for this tournament was to honor the 100th anniversary of Argentina’s declaration of independence from Spain and its push across the Andes to help liberate Chile. In other words, the 2016 Copa America is a centennial celebration of a centennial celebration. Moreover, the idea of a continental tournament was itself a nod to Simon Bolívar’s desire for American unity across the entire Western Hemisphere. This Bolivarian ideal is often linked to Latin American politics. In recent years, leftist governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil pitched Bolivarianism as a populist and anti-imperialist rebuke to U.S. foreign policy in the region. Yet, the long history of Bolivarianism in Latin America suggests that political and social figures imagined Pan-Americanism in distinct ways but nonetheless rooted in a shared mission to counter the power and influence of the Old World.
This Europe-America struggle continues to define world soccer culture. Every World Cup winner is either from Europe or South America. Brazil is the most successful nation, lifting the Jules Rimet trophy five times, followed by Germany and Italy with four titles each. Uruguay and Argentina have won two World Cup titles, although Uruguayans will be quick to point out that their victories at the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games also count as world championships (FIFA organized the men’s tournament at both Games). England, France, and Spain are the other past World Cup winners. The same tension revolves around the Ballon D’Or, which honors the world’s best player. In recent years, two players, Lionel Messi (Argentina) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), have dominated this award, with only Liberian striker George Weah breaking up the South American-European hegemony of the last twenty years. [Prior to 1995, Ballon D’Or winners were all European citizens, selected by the magazine France Football.]
Perhaps another way to look at this European-American relationship is at the organizational level. Last year, the U.S. Justice Department, in coordination with Swiss authorities, arrested several high-ranking FIFA officials and other individuals connected to soccer. All of those detained in Zurich were either North or South Americans, although the ultimate targets were all European: (then) FIFA President Sepp Blatter, FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke, and UEFA President Michel Platini. Ultimately, all three men have been removed from their duties in an effort by FIFA to clean up its sordid reputation but only American soccer officials currently face lengthy prison sentences. [Read this ESPN article for a comprehensive review of the FIFA scandal, and the pivotal role that American FIFA executive Chuck Blazer played in the eventual sting operations in Zurich.]
The FIFA corruption scandal raised important questions about the true purpose of this Copa America Centenario. Was it organized to cover money-laundering and kickback schemes? Did the television rights involve bribes in excess of $100 million? To be fair, allegations of corruption linked to Copa America predate this summer’s edition. Most notably, rumors about illicit dealings surfaced last year in Chile in the middle of the FIFA crackdown. The sheer scope of the 2016 tournament, however, raised serious questions about television and sponsorship contracts and how CONMEBOL and CONCACAF would manage revenue. Ticket prices are astronomically high compared to previous Copa Americas. The smallest venue – Orlando’s Citrus Bowl – boasts a capacity of 60,129 that would rival the size of most major venues in South America. Clearly, placing the Copa America in the United States appealed to many soccer officials, sponsors, and television executives, and the U.S. Justice Department took notice accordingly. Still, the game goes on. Even as unofficial soccer hero Loretta Lynch continues her investigation, the United States will host America’s continental championship. So, with apologies to those who are anticipating the “Euro” this summer, let’s take a closer look at the Copa America Centenario. [This is a blog on sports in American history after all.]
Venues and Teams
Ten cities will host the tournament: Santa Clara (CA), Seattle (WA), Pasadena (CA), Glendale (AZ), Houston (TX), Chicago (IL), Orlando (FL), Foxborough (MA), New Brunswick (NJ), and Philadelphia (PA). Sixteen teams will vie for the trophy: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela from CONMEBOL; Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Panamá, and the United States from CONCACAF. Similar to the World Cup, four teams will be in each group with the top two countries advancing to the knockout stages. The opening match kicks off at 9:30 ET from the Bay Area, with the final on Sunday June 26 at 8pm ET from MetLife Stadium in NJ.
Every soccer tournament seems to have a “Group of Death.” Unfortunately for the host nation, the U.S. will find itself struggling to get out of a tough group. Colombia marveled audiences at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Led by Real Madrid (for now) star James Rodriguez, and coached by José Peckerman, Colombia plays with an attacking flair that will give opposing defenses trouble. Although Paraguay is not a traditional powerhouse of South American soccer, it has performed well in recent tournaments and looks to continue its form under former River Plate coach Ramón Diaz. The fourth team in Group A is Costa Rica – generally considered as one of the best teams in CONCACAF and the other darling in Brazil two years ago. The Ticos also have some revenge on their mind against the U.S., still sore from losing 1-0 in a “snow-clásico” in Colorado during World Cup qualification three years ago (yes, Ticos have a long memory).
For U.S. head coach Jürgen Klinsmann, mixing in promising young players, like Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe, alongside veteran players, like Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, will be critical in achieving the minimal goal of advancing to the knockout stages.
Brazil enters this tournament with more questions than answers. It has been years since the Seleção have exhibited anything resembling the “beautiful game” of the 1960s-70s-80s (and maybe 2002). With this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian soccer federation decided to reserve the nation’s iconic player, Neymar, for the Olympics as Brazil try to win a gold medal for the first time (no, this is not a misprint). Head coach Dunga will have to look for answers elsewhere, but the Seleção should have enough talent to move to the round of eight.
Haiti enters the tournament through a play-in set of matches in the Caribbean. Although it has made life difficult for visiting opponents in CONCACF play, Haiti will struggle to get out of this particular group. One reason is Ecuador – the surprising top team in South American World Cup qualifying thus far (tied on points with Uruguay). Led by Antonio Valencia, Jefferson Montero, and Enner Valencia, Ecuador has the talent to play spoiler and bump Brazil out of first place in Group B. Although Perú has struggled in World Cup qualifying this cycle, it performed well at last year’s Copa America and will be a difficult opponent.
The “unofficial” co-host of this year’s Copa America is México. El Tri will likely enjoy massive support in each of its first three matches against Uruguay, Jamaica, and Venezuela. Historically the “heavyweight” of CONCACAF, México has experienced a tumultuous decade that saw the U.S. and Costa Rica emerge as serious rivals. After struggling to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, El Tri performed well in Brazil and is beginning to reclaim a certain swagger under new coach Juan Carlos Osorio. The star attraction is Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. Other key players include national team stalwarts Oribe Peralta, Andrés Guardado and Héctor Herrera Carlos. A revived Mexico should move deep in this tournament.
Uruguay will miss its talismanic striker Luis Suárez (likely) for the opening stages after suffering an injury playing for his club team FC Barcelona. Still, head coach Oscar Tabárez has an experienced squad led by Edison Cavani and Diego Godín. Uruguay plays a hard-nosed style characterized by the garra charrúa (Uruguayan grit) traditional of the Uruguayan player. It is also one of the most dominant teams in the history of Copa America, winning the tournament fifteen times, including the inaugural edition in 1916. Jamaica and Venezuela round out Group C. Both teams have improved in recent years but it will be tough for either of them to advance past Mexico and Uruguay.
Make no mistake, the star attraction at this year’s Copa America is Argentina’s captain Lionel Messi – the five-time world player of the year. His team is on a mission to win this tournament after losing the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America. The last time Los Albicelestes won a major tournament was at the 1993 Copa America. This trophy gap is surprising; next to Uruguay, Argentina has won the most Copa Americas with fourteen titles. However, serious questions surround Argentina, which has yet to take off under head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino. The team is experiencing a series of last-minute injuries to key players like Lucas Biglia, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Messi himself. In recent weeks, a squabble between the national government and the Argentine Football Association (AFA) led to rumors that AFA officials would pull its national team out of the Copa America as a challenge to investigations dealing with corruption and mismanagement. New President Mauricio Macri (a former soccer official at Boca Juniors) has ordered an inquiry to funds associated with Fútbol Para Todos — the state-run program that televises all Argentine league games and established by Macri’s predecessor, and political rival, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Macri has hinted at a possible intervention of AFA by the federal government. AFA elections have also been postponed due to supposed voting irregularities and posturing between club associations. Despite these concerns, Argentina has one of the most potent offenses in world soccer. Sergio Agüero, Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuaín, Erik Lamela, Ever Banega, and Javier Pastore will pose an immense challenge for rival defenses in Group D.
Chile has a strong nucleus to repeat as champions in the United States. Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez, and Claudio Bravo are world-class players and game-changers. The main question surrounds the coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi, who took over this January and has had little time to prepare for this tournament. The goal for Chile is to reach another final and prove that 2015 was no fluke.
Panamá and Bolivia do not figure to move past Argentina and Chile. Although both teams play well at home, they regularly struggle on the road. Panamanian players will look at previous results at Gold Cup tournaments held in the U.S., including a second-place finish in 2013, as inspiration for an unexpected move past the group stage.
Who knows! Predicting this tournament (or any sports competition) is beyond my pay grade. Argentina and Brazil will always be among the favorites. Not only are these South American rivals multiple World Cup champions, they are also the top exporters of soccer players around the world. Based on history, and recent form, Uruguay should also be included among the favorites. It is odd to refer to the reigning South American champions, Chile, as a dark horse candidate, but a victory in the United States would cement the legacy of this “golden generation” and quell criticism of last year’s triumph as the result of its home-field advantage as host nation. Another dark horse candidate is Mexico, which has always performed well when invited to the Copa America and looks to cement its revival in recent years. And, of course, the United States will seek to use its own home-field advantage to secure a memorable achievement.
This Copa America is unique in one crucial aspect: almost every team will enjoy massive “home” support. Argentine, Brazilian, Colombian, Peruvian, and especially Mexican fans living in the United States will travel and show their support in full force. The presence of these disparate Pan-American, and soccer-mad, communities living across the U.S. enticed CONCACAF and CONMEBOL officials to break tradition by hosting the tournament outside of South America. Their hope is that sell-out crowds at massive stadiums, and an attractive sports spectacle, will restore the fiscal health and tarnished reputation of both organizations. Simón Bolivar, one would imagine, might have enjoyed this Copa America as well, witnessing a true display of American unity this summer.
For the record, and not surprisingly (see my research field), I’ll go with the same final from 1916: Argentina vs. Uruguay. This time, however, Messi and company will flip the result and help end Argentina’s 23-year tournament drought.
Rwany Sibaja is an Assistant Professor of History and Director of History, Social Studies Education at Appalachian State University. His primary research focuses on the history of soccer in Argentina and identity formation. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @rwanysibaja