For USA-based fans, the 2016 Copa America Centenario seems set to be one of the high-points of the soccer year.
It will be the first time that the Copa America, now in its 45th edition, will be held outside South America, and expectations are high for the success of the tournament.
“The scale of the 2016 Copa America Centenario will be, at a minimum, twice the size of Copa America 2015, from both in-stadium attendance, global television reach and U.S. market awareness,” Kathy Carter, President of Soccer United Marketing, Major League Soccer’s commercial arm, told Forbes in January. “This will be the single biggest soccer event since the 1994 FIFA World Cup.”
In much of Latin America, however, the reaction to the tournament has been rather less gushing.
“The Copa America? I haven’t really thought about it much,” said Rafael Soares, a fan of Atlético Mineiro from Brazil’s third biggest city, Belo Horizonte.
“I’m more interested in Atlético, to be honest. I don’t pay much attention to the Seleção. Maybe when it’s the World Cup. But not for the Copa America,” he continued.
“There was a Copa America last year, wasn’t there? This one feels like a marketing exercise. It’s all about the money, as usual,” said his friend Paulo Martins, as the two enjoyed a pre-match beer before Atlético’s state championship game against Tricordiano in April.
Brazil, South America’s most storied soccer nation, will prioritize the soccer tournament of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics over the Copa America – Olympic gold is the only major soccer prize that the country has never won, and the competition is given added spice by being on home soil.
And the close proximity of the two tournaments – the Copa America will take place in June, while the Olympics runs through the first three weeks in August – has already made a casualty of one of the competition’s poster boys.
When under-fire Brazil coach Dunga announced his 23-man squad for the tournament earlier this month, the name of Neymar was conspicuously absent.
Understandably, Barcelona had insisted that its star forward, who has played summer tournaments for the last four years, only be made available for one international competition this year. And as expected, Brazil has opted for the Olympics.
Brazil’s World Cup success often makes Copa America seem very much a second choice.
As well as a disappointment for fans, Neymar’s absence represents a blow for the Copa America’s marketing agencies.
The striker had featured heavily on promotional materials before being replaced by considerably less glamorous central defender David Luiz on the tournament’s official website.
Brazil has long had a complicated history with the Copa America, with the country’s World Cup success often making the tournament seem very much a second choice. In contrast to its unbeatable five Mundial titles, Brazil has won only eight of the 44 Copa Americas to date, trailing both Argentina and Uruguay in the title pecking order.
The Seleção struggled badly at the last two tournaments, being knocked out by Paraguay on both occasions. And Brazil’s apathy towards the tournament was clearly visible in Chile last year, where, in contrast to the large traveling support enjoyed by countries such as Colombia and Argentina, the Brazilian fans rarely amounted to more than a small huddle in the corner of the stadiums where their team played.
But Brazil is not alone in being left unmoved by the 2016 Copa America. The tournament comes slap bang in the middle of South America’s mammoth, fiercely competitive World Cup qualifying tournament – a competition which is of far greater importance to many South American nations.
Perú coach Ricardo Gareca, for example, has said that he sees the tournament as an opportunity to field young talent – something that is impossible to do amidst the white-hot heat of the World Cup qualifiers. Especially considering Perú’s poor early form – the team has won just one of its first six games.
The tournament may represent a last chance for Argentina’s golden generation of Lionel Messi.
The 40-man initial squad that Gareca announced at the end of April did not include veteran stars Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfán. “The Copa America Centenario will feature a lot of young players, which seems like a good bet for Perú,” former France and Juventus striker David Trezeguet told the country’s El Comercio newspaper.
Paraguay, who are in the USA’s group, seem to be thinking along similar lines – coach Ramón Diaz is on record as saying that the country has to start “giving opportunities to the young players because they are the future.”
Only 13 of the country’s 2015 Copa America group have been called up to the squad for this year’s tournament, which features four players with less than two caps, including 18-year-old Club Olimpia defender Blas Riveros.
Of course, there are plenty of other sides around to provide excitement at the Copa America. The tournament may represent a last chance for Argentina’s golden generation of Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano et al. to finally lift a major trophy, while Ecuador and Uruguay, both flying high in World Cup qualifying, should also be strong.
As well as missing stars, however, another cloud hangs over the Copa America Centenario – corruption. For a long time, in fact, it looked as though the tournament might not be played at all.
The US Justice Department investigations into global soccer corruption include allegations that millions of dollars in bribes were paid in relation to Copa America TV and marketing deals.
Last year’s Copa America in Chile, was notable for the lack of CONMEBOL and national association executives in attendance.
As part of those investigations, a string of present or former members of South America soccer’s governing body CONMEBOL have either been arrested or implicated in bribes and money laundering rackets, including the association’s former president Eugenio Figueredo.
Jose Maria Marin, the former president of the Brazilian soccer association, the CBF, is under house arrest in New York, while his successor Marco Polo Del Nero, fearing arrest himself, has been unable to travel outside Brazil for much of his time in office.
Last year’s Copa America in Chile, in fact, was notable for the lack of CONMEBOL and national association executives in attendance.
After news of the FBI bribes scandal broke last year, Jose Luis Meiszner, then the secretary general of CONMEBOL, expressed doubts that the Copa America Centenario would be played at all.
“Today one has to question the possibility of playing this tournament,” he said. “We have to be prepared for enormous turmoil to hold this event, given the rights holders are also being questioned.”
Meiszner himself was later indicted on corruption charges in December 2015.
“CONMEBOL is the worst sporting administrative organization in the world. It’s worse than Africa or Asia. They and all their directors are heavily involved in the corruption scandals being investigated,” said Amir Somoggi, a Brazilian sports finance and marketing consultant.
“The Copa America is not the tournament it should be.”
“At the same time, it’s easy to understand why the USA is excited about the Copa America. They don’t really have a tournament like this,” he continued.
According to Somoggi, however, the Copa America Centenario, following so quickly on the heels of the 2015 edition of the tournament in Chile, is purely a money-making exercise – and a shabby way to celebrate the anniversary of the world’s oldest international soccer tournament.
“It’s a joke in very poor taste. It’s so badly organized. The Euros (the European equivalent to the Copa America) take place every four years, so everybody is waiting for them. It’s a big moment for European football,” he said. “But it seems like there is a Copa America every year. People will get excited when there’s a big game, like when Argentina play Brazil or Uruguay. But the Copa America is not the tournament it should be.”