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Hello fans, and welcome to Copa América 2016, the Centennial edition! The action doesn’t start for another few days, but El Bolso is here to give you a quick introduction to the tournament. Let’s get to it!


One Hundred Years of History


Jerry West was unavailable, so the logo designers went with Erykah Badu. (La Gazzetta)
Jerry West was unavailable, so the logo designers went with Erykah Badu. (La Gazzetta)


The Copa América is the oldest major tournament in existence, having been held for the first time in Argentina in 1916. I mean, that’s 14 years before the first World Cup, and 44 years the first Euro (get it together, UEFA!). Argentina were joined by Uruguay, Brazil and Chile, with the Celestes lifting the cup after a scoreless tie with the home team (Uruguay winning titles on Argentinian soil would become a running theme in the Copa, by the way).


The tournament has gone through a series of changes regarding participants, schedules, and formats, but one thing has remained constant: Argentina and Uruguay win this thing a lot. Uruguay has won 15 times, the last coming just 5 years ago in… wait for it… Argentina. Look, why Uruguay would ever bother to host, when they can win just as easily when Argentina spends all the money to put this thing together, is beyond me. Anyway, even though Uruguay keeps stealing their home field advantage, the Albicelestes have won more than their share–14 titles in all–although none since 1993 (Lio who?). Brazil is a distant third with 8 titles, and everyone else combined has won 7 times, so they don’t matter (yes, even you, Chile).


Being the host matters a lot in this tournament. The host has won the title 22 out of 41 times, but that stat is skewed because some hosts never really have a prayer (looking at you, Venezuela) and because Uruguay and Argentina have been absolute road beasts, winning 7 away titles each. Other than the big 3 (those two and Brazil) only Paraguay has ever won a cup on strange soil. The host has several built-in advantages: intimate knowledge of the playing fields, favorable scheduling, biased refereeing, consequence-free sexual harassment, lenient criminal justice systems, you name it. That’s why this particular version of the tournament is so interesting: it will be the first one ever played outside of South America.


Our defending champion is Chile, which rode an insane performance from Arturo Vidal, a strong defense, and the usual host nation chicanery to the only major win in its long, unremarkable history. Because of the unusual timing of this event, Chile is the first champion in modern history to have to defend their title the very next year. Sorry Trasandinos! Before that, there was the 2011 tournament, won by everyone’s favorite national team thanks to outstanding performances from Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez.


The Search for More Money


Copa América the FLAAAAMETHROWER! The kids love this one. (E! Online)
Copa América the FLAAAAMETHROWER! The kids love this one. (E! Online)


So why is the 100 year anniversary of the Copa América being held in the US? Well, it’s complicated. CONCACAF teams have been participating as “also special guests” since 1993, when CONMEBOL figured out that having a quarterfinal round made for a meatier tournament, and qualifying 8 out of 10 teams from the group stage would be ridiculous. Look, this isn’t CONMEBOL’s fault. Spain dropped the ball in the 17th Century by not dividing their colonies into smaller subdivisions, and Suriname and Guyana dropped the ball by utterly sucking at soccer. So CONMEBOL is stuck with 10 members and needs to hustle to fill out a draw. It is what it is.


Having said that, they’re playing in the US because… money. More money. So much money. ALL the money. North is where the money is (not that far north… sorry Canada), so North we shall go. Of course, if you’re going to have a party at the neighbor’s house because they have a pool, you can’t just invite them, you have to let some of their annoying friends join in, so instead of the traditional 2 slot allowance, CONCACAF is getting 6 teams and 2 group seeds out of the deal. Plus, I’m sure any CONCACAF country executives not currently in jail (Hi, Bob!) get luxury boxes for the games and what not.


So the format will be different from that of the last few tournaments, but changing the format around every decade or two is a Copa América tradition, so no one will mind. 16 teams were placed in 4 groups of 4, to play a single game round robin starting on June 3rd to qualify the best 2 squads to the quarterfinals. After that it’s a single game playoff bracket all the way to the June 26th final. Simple and elegant, unlike some past tournaments. Remember the 70s and 80s, when teams played home and away playoff series over a period of many months, and there was no set host? Of course you don’t, but I do, and it was horrible. Trust me. This is better.


But is the tournament getting any traction on this side of Trump’s make-believe fence? Well, it’s gotten enough coverage to piss off Mike Francesa, so right there we’re all winners, right? Thanks for your opinion, Mike, why don’t you go back to falling asleep on the air and berating callers because you can’t be bothered to spend 5 minutes reading playoff box scores each morning. Those of use who can pronounce the word “soccer” correctly will be over here enjoying the games.


The Contestants


Really, the biggest stars they could get for the draw were Valderrama and Alexi Lalas? (USA Today)
Really, the biggest stars they could get for the draw were Valderrama and Alexi Lalas? (USA Today)


So who’s got a shot at winning this thing? I was going to talk about team rosters and stars, but I can’t keep up with the steady stream of injury reports, so I’ll just say this: Lionel Messi will be there, to see if he can finally win something with Argentina. Neymar won’t, because Brazil wants a gold medal this year to distract from the literal rivers of shit surrounding their Olympic venues, and Barcelona won’t let him play in both tournaments. Suárez got hurt in the Copa del Rey final and will likely miss the first few games. Vidal will be there. James Rodríguez… I mean who gives a crap? Is that guy still a thing? No word yet on whether Pizzouzza or either of the Arriagas made it into the final rosters.


Anyway, here’s a brief note on each team’s chances, bullet point style because I have a day job:


Group A


USA: They’re the group seed because they put up all the cash, and for no other reason. Does everyone still hate Klinsmann for letting it slip that MLS is a crappy league? Is Freddie Adu still playing? Seriously, the US may be the only team in this field that doesn’t get enough respect to get favorable calls from referees, and they’ll have to work hard to move on from this group.


Colombia: The surprise team in the 2014 World Cup has not been faring well in the World Cup Qualifiers lately, plus they have never won jack squat away from home soil, and they have a known tendency to, em, lose their intestinal fortitude in big games. They’re not winning this, but they should at least make the quarters.


Costa Rica: Another 2014 revelation (and the other team to beat Uruguay in the tournament), the Ticos always seem on the cusp of greatness, but never get over the hump. Can they steal a quarterfinal spot away from USA and Colombia? They had England, Italy and Uruguay in their World Cup group and got through. Don’t sleep on them.


Paraguay: Traditionally one of the strongest squads in South America thanks to their stout defense and… something something, Paraguay is going through a bit of a generational recharge right now and may be the weakest team in the group, but again, it’s hard to score on them, so they have a shot. I don’t expect to see them in the quarters this time around though.


Group B


Brazil: Even without Neymar, Brazil has the players to make a deep run. Too bad they’re coached by Dunga, who seems hell bent on turning the Canarinha into a joyless, rough team that steals games away with defense and that one play where Neymar was allowed to do his thing. Look, Dunga, we already have Paraguay for that. Have your players practice bicycle kicks and what not. It’s hard to gauge what Brazil can do in this tournament but, they can always get on a streak and run the table.


Ecuador: They are one of the strongest teams in CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifiying over the last decade, but unless they’re allowed to move their games to Quito, don’t expect to see much from them. They are the consummate home team, and won’t get to use that advantage here. They should move on to the quarters, but only because the rest of the group is so awful.


Haiti: I mean, for real? Get out of here. Was Cuba busy?


Peru: The Incaicos placed 3rd in the 2011 Copa America and played eventual champion Uruguay tough twice. Since then, they’ve pretty much gone in the toilet. I mean, there’s not a lot of competition for second place in the group so they could move on, but I think Peru is still waiting to recapture that 2011 magic.


Group C


Mexico: Continentally, they’re always a force to be reckoned with, and they may just be the real home team in this tournament, so Mexico has to be considered as a candidate to win the whole thing (that would be the first time a non-CONMEBOL team wins the Copa América, by the way). El Tri hoisting hardware in late June is definitely a possibility.


Uruguay: I know, you were probably expecting 18 paragraphs on the Celeste, but I’ll be writing about them plenty once the games begin. Uruguay comes into this cup as an enigma. The Suárez injury has a real impact on their chances, and the roster is still full of guys whose better days are probably behind. Still, it’s Uruguay; the Celestes have been among the Copa América Final Four in 5 of the last 6 tournaments, and barely missed a spot in 2015 against the combined efforts of host Chile and the game officials. Honestly, I have no idea what to expect. All I can say is Go Celestes! Let’s hope no one gets hurt and has to miss any of the Summer WC qualifiers.


Jamaica: Not expecting much from the Reggae Boys, not with Uruguay and Mexico on the schedule.


Venezuela: Like Peru, another team that seemed to be making strides and has fallen off a cliff. I don’t think they have what it takes to get out of this group.


Group D


Argentina: I mean, they have to be the big favorites, right? They were the best team in each of the last two tournaments, and happened to run into destiny both times (Uruguay in 2011, Chile in 2015). Messi is here, and a lot of the other traditional powers have significant question marks to resolve, so it will be a huge disappointment for the Albicelestes if they manage to once again come home empty handed.


Chile: The defending champions get to show us what they can do without the benefit of home cooking, and if the 2018 WC Qualifiers are any indication, it won’t be much. They have a good bunch of players, led by Vidal, but I don’t think the NYPD will be as understanding as the Chilean police if he drunkenly wrecks a Ferrari mid-tournament. They should get out of the group, but not much further.


Panama: Like former strongman Manuel Noriega, Panama always looks scarier on paper than it really is. I like what the team tried to do under former Nacional star Julio Dely Valdés (they bounced Mexico out of the 2013 Gold Cup and would have done so again in 2015 but for some of the worst refereeing I’ve ever seen), but I don’t know that they’re still moving in the right direction. I don’t think they have what it takes to survive against Chile and Argentina.


Bolivia: This is a slightly different situation from Panama’s: I KNOW they don’t have what it takes to get past Chile and Argentina. Sorry Bolivia, it’s 3 and out for you.


Final Thoughts


Look fans, I have no idea what’s going to happen this time around. I think Argentina is the big favorite, with some combination of Mexico, Brazil, and maybe Uruguay/Chile/USA as potential spoilers. Can Colombia make a run? Sure. Can Paraguay ride 6 ties to title like they almost did in 2011? I guess. Can Haiti pull off a shocking upset? Well, no, they can’t. That one’s not going to happen. Otherwise, it’s a pretty open tournament, so it should be fun to watch.


That’s all for me. I can’t wait for the games to begin! here’s a little something to get you psyched up for this very special episode of Copa América:


About El Bolso

El Bolso is Uruguay’s foremost soccer-fan-in-exile, a true authority on the Celeste and its favored son, the Club Nacional de Football. He believes in precision passing, tireless marking, and strong finishing, and is not above the occasional slide tackle from behind when the situation calls for it.