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Argentina's chaotic Copa América planning puts Brazil in driving seat

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/06/2019 Jonathan Wilson
a group of baseball players playing a football game: Lionel Messi’s Argentina have gone 26 years without winning a major senior tournament. © EPA Lionel Messi’s Argentina have gone 26 years without winning a major senior tournament.

The good news for Argentina is that Conmebol have handily arranged another Copa América for next year, one they will co-host with Colombia, so the thought that this year’s Copa might be Lionel Messi’s last chance to win a senior international tournament has already been defused. The bad news is that no matter how many new tournaments keep on being invented, it’s now 26 years since Argentina won any of them and it seems increasingly likely that the golden production line that brought five Under-20 World Cups in seven tournaments between 1995 and 2007 and Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008 will remain forever unfulfilled.

Argentina’s preparations have been typically chaotic, almost as though they’re still stunned by what happened at the World Cup when they were beaten 4-3 by France after a fraught group stage from which they only qualified via the implausible medium of a late goal in their final game from Marcos Rojo. When the best laid plans go awry so often, the thinking seems to be, why bother laying them at all?

The pressure of the job reduced the manager Jorge Sampaoli to a sickly, sweating wreck. He clearly had to go but working out who could replace him was rather trickier. Having appointed one of his backroom staff, Lionel Scaloni, as caretaker, the Argentinian Football Association ended up confirming the former West Ham full-back in the role until the end of this Copa América.

César Luis Menotti, who led Argentina to the World Cup in 1978, was installed as technical director to at least add a gloss of success but his main contribution so far has been to suggest the squad for the tournament should largely be drawn from those playing in the Argentinian league. That admittedly worked for him in 1978 when the junta prevented anybody but Mario Kempes from leaving but it seemed an eccentric plan given the economics of 2019 and has been understandably ignored.


Richarlison has been Brazil’s most dangerous player in recent games. Photograph: Diego Vara/Reuters © Reuters Richarlison has been Brazil’s most dangerous player in recent games. Photograph: Diego Vara/Reuters

The favourites are probably Brazil, who have won all four of the previous Copas América they’ve hosted. They’ve won nine and drawn one of their 10 games since their World Cup quarter-final exit against Belgium but it would be misleading to say there’s any great sense of confidence or serenity about the squad. Neymar will miss the tournament after sustaining an ankle injury in a friendly against Qatar but, given he is facing rape allegations, the absence of him, his circus and the distractions they bring may make it easier for the team to focus.

With Gabriel Jesus out of sorts and Roberto Firmino still recovering fitness, there is an issue at centre-forward and in recent games the most threatening presence in the box has been Richarlison dipping in from the right. Midfield is an issue as well: Belgium showed in the World Cup how they could be overrun and the Czech Republic did much the same to them in the first half of a friendly in March, prompting the coach Tite to bring Everton on for Lucas Paquetá to offer support to Casemiro, shifting shape from his beloved 4-1-4-1 to 4-2-3-1.

Uruguay are perhaps the most likely challengers to Brazil, although they are sweating on the fitness of Luis Suárez. Their strength these days, beyond the sense of collective identity conjured by their 72-year-old coach Óscar Tabárez, is the burgeoning midfield of Rodrigo Bentancur, Matías Vecino and Lucas Torreira, sandwiched by an experienced defence and forward line looking to give it one last (or second-last, given the additional tournament next year) push.

This will be Colombia’s first tournament under Carlos Queiroz after José Pekerman’s six years in the job. Three friendlies under the former Real Madrid and Iran manager have brought mixed results and it’s not at all clear how Colombia’s more explosive talents will be accommodated in his characteristic patient passing style.

After their successes in the last two Copas, this Chile look tired, their great generation having run out of steam to the extent that they failed even to qualify for the World Cup. Beyond the obvious big four, the greatest interest perhaps lies in one of the two invitees, Qatar (the other being Japan). They won the Asian Cup in impressive style earlier in the year and as they prepare to host the World Cup in 2022 this is an opportunity to test themselves in unfamiliar conditions against very different opponents. They’ve been a little unfortunate with the draw, though, being grouped with Argentina and Colombia as well as a Paraguay side in chaos. Looking for a change to a more progressive approach, they appointed Juan Carlos Osorio last September but he left by mutual consent in February to be replaced by Eduardo Berizzo, who enjoyed great success as Marcelo Bielsa’s assistant with Chile.

Beyond that, there’s Peru’s attempts to squeeze one last drop of energy from the 35 year-old striker Paolo Guerrero and perhaps the greatest human story of the tournament as Venezuela play against the backdrop of ongoing political turmoil back home.

A sense of mischief, perhaps, demands that Messi should finally break his international duck in the Maracanã, where he suffered such disappointment five years ago, but Brazil are strong favourites. The 2014 World Cup, though, showed the pressure they can feel as hosts and with plenty of tensions within the squad, this perhaps is an opportunity for Colombia if they can adjust to Queiroz’s dictats or for Tabárez to recreate the World Cup victory Uruguay implausibly pulled off in Rio three years after he was born.

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