Copa America preview: Messi will be there, Neymar won't, and other things to know

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Lionel Messi gets his latest shot at winning a trophy with Argentina's senior team. (Getty)
Lionel Messi gets his latest shot at winning a trophy with Argentina's senior team. (Getty)

There is a breathtaking amount of soccer happening this summer. In addition to the Women’s World Cup, the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the 46th edition of the Copa America will be taking place. Here’s all the vital info for the South American jamboree.

What is it?

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It’s the championship of CONMEBOL, the South American confederation. It features all 10 member nations and two guests to bulk it out to 12 teams. For this edition, the guests are both from the Asian Federation: Japan and World Cup 2022 hosts Qatar.

It’s a quadrennial tournament that serves as the South American equivalent of the European championships. It’s the oldest international continental soccer competition in the world, predating the World Cup and the Euros.

Hang on, if it’s held every four years in South America, why was there a Copa America in 2016 in the USA?

That was a special one-off Copa America Centenario, held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first-ever edition in 1916.

It was staged in conjunction with CONCACAF and expanded to 16 teams, in order to include six CONCACAF nations. It was held in the U.S. because … well, it’s hard to think of a reason that doesn’t revolve around making more money.

OK, so they’ll resume the quadrennial schedule and the next one after this will be in 2023?

Actually, no. The next one is actually going to be held in 2020, as CONMEBOL want to switch it to even years, so that it will be held in the same summer as the European Championships from now on.

It means we will have had four Copa Americas in a six-year period.

That’s confusing.

It is, and it means a lot more summer tournament soccer for South American players. That’s good for fans, but not so good for the overworked stars who may have already put too many miles on the clock (we’re looking at you, Alexis Sanchez).

Where is it being held?

Brazil! The samba nation was originally scheduled to host the 2015 edition, but swapped with Chile for their 2019 tournament, due to the burden of organizing the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

Neymar will miss Copa America in his home country due to injury. (Getty)
Neymar will miss Copa America in his home country due to injury. (Getty)

Six stadiums in five cities will host. The revered Maracana in Rio will host the final and four other matches, while you may recognize three of the other stadiums from the 2014 World Cup — the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paolo, the Estádio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte and Salvador’s Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova.

The two stadiums you did not see at the World Cup are the open-air Estádio do Morumbi in Sao Paolo, and the impressive Arena Grêmio in Port Alegre. Despite its futuristic design, the Grêmio stadium was mysteriously snubbed by the World Cup organizers.

When does it start?

The action kicks off on Friday, when Brazil hosts Bolivia in Sao Paolo at 8.30 p.m. ET. The final will be on July 7 at 4 p.m. ET.

What is the tournament format?

The teams are split into three groups of four, so each nation gets three group stage games. The top two from each group go through to the quarterfinals, along with the two best-performing third-placed teams.

Hence, only four teams don’t make it into the knockout stages.

Is there a group of death?

The top three CONMEBOL teams by ranking — Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina — have been separated. Arguably, Group B is where the most parity may be found. An Argentina side that hasn’t covered itself in glory recently will face Colombia and Paraguay, along with guests Qatar.

The controversial 2022 World Cup hosts may offer more than people think: They won the Asian Cup earlier this year and beat top 10-ranked Switzerland last November.

So it’s held in Brazil and the hosts don’t have a tricky group. Are we going to see Neymar lift the trophy?

Afraid not. Brazil’s star player will miss the tournament after rupturing ankle ligaments in a friendly against Qatar last week. The last time Neymar was injured while Brazil hosted a major tournament it didn’t turn out too well, but the Selecao are the favorites this time. Their group isn’t too taxing and they are undefeated since the 2018 World Cup.

They also have some worthy understudies for Neymar: Ajax sensation David Neres will likely fill in for the Paris Saint-Germain star on the left flank, while Gabriel Jesus, Richarlison and Roberto Firmino will be relied upon for goals.

Will Chile win its third straight Copa America crown? (Getty)
Will Chile win its third straight Copa America crown? (Getty)

Brazil hasn’t won the tournament since 2007 and will be keen to show their prowess, particularly if they meet arch rival Argentina in the knockout stages. They have met 19 times in Copa America and Brazil has been triumphant in the last three meetings, dating back to 1999.

Argentina is second favorite, with Lionel Messi touted as the clear favorite to receive the Golden Boot, based on another excellent season at Barcelona. Jesus, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Sergio Aguero and Firmino are also in the running for top scorer.

So Brazil must have historically dominated the Copa America, right?

Not at all: The Selecao have won only eight of 45 editions. Argentina has won it 14 times, but the most successful team in the tournament is Uruguay, with 15 wins. They last won it in 2011, when goals from Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan toppled Paraguay in the final.

Uruguay is third favorite this time, and comes into the tournament has won its last three matches by an aggregate 10-0 scoreline.

Will the guests nations pose a threat?

Possibly. Japan has been in strong form since they nearly evicted Belgium from the 2018 World Cup. They reached the Asian Cup Final in February, where they were defeated by … Qatar.

The aforementioned 2022 World Cup hosts are also in good form, but neither Asian confederation guest is expected to make it as far as the final — it would be highly embarrassing for CONMEBOL if they did.

However, there is a reasonable chance they could make the knockout rounds, at the expense of a South American side. At the 2016 edition, for example, both the U.S. and Mexico topped their groups.

Incidentally, this is the first Copa America since guests were introduced that a CONCACAF team won’t feature. Mexico has been an ever-present guest since the 1993 edition, but this year’s Copa America directly clashes with the Gold Cup.

How do I watch it?

All 26 games will be available on the ESPN+ service. Telemundo, meanwhile, will show all the matches except the semifinals and final, which will be on Universo.

They are all occurring in friendly time zones too, with much of the action taking place in east coast prime time.

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