Argentina desperate to end 23-year Copa America drought
Lionel Messi’s generation have yet to claim silverware at the senior international stage
Sergio Aguero, Lionel Messi, Lucas Biglia and Pablo Zabaleta were all part of last year’s Argentina squad beaten in the Copa America final. Photograph: Getty Images
Not everybody, it’s fair to say, will be taking the Copa America Centenario entirely seriously. There’s the Olympics to prepare for and, after a World Cup and an orthodox Copa America in the last two summers, it’s perhaps understandable if fatigue dulls the edge. But Argentina care. For them, every tournament is a chance to break a trophy drought that stretches back 23 years.
Since Alfio Basile’s side - featuring Diego Simeone, Fernando Redondo and Gabriel Batistuta - triumphed in Ecuador in 1993, Argentina have won five Under-20 World Cups and two Olympic golds. They’ve reached the final of three Copa Americas and two World Cups. But, almost unthinkably, this generation of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, veterans of the 2008 Olympic gold, may end up winning nothing at senior level. All three are in their late 20s now, and the clock is ticking. The last of those five youth successes came in 2007: the seemingly endless production of high-class forwards has slowed to a trickle.
“Nobody can say that Argentina lack players,” said Hugo Tocalli, who was coach of those last two Under-20 World Cup winning teams and an assistant to Jose Pekerman at the 2006 World Cup. “We do have great players, 2002, 2006, 2010, but winning the World Cup is not easy. Fitness is vital, they can be tired and it’s difficult. Luck, also.”
But with Neymar out of the Brazil squad, preferring to pursue Brazil’s first Olympic football gold on home soil later in the year, and Luis Suarez doubtful for Uruguay after damaging his hamstring, it’s hard to imagine Argentina will ever have a better chance - even with Messi likely to miss the start of the tournament after hurting his back in a friendly against Honduras.
It’s not just, though, that opponents are weakened. This is an Argentina team in form. Messi, Di Maria and Aguero have all had good seasons and so, most vitally perhaps, has Gonzalo Higuain, who missed good chances in both the World Cup and Copa America finals. He scored 36 goals for Napoli last season, breaking a Serie A record set in 1950. “I felt a level of confidence I have not previously felt,” he said. “When you are right in the head, the rest comes naturally.”
Higuain has often not been right in the head. He is a player who a former coach didn’t dare take off penalty duties after he’d missed a couple because he dreaded what losing the tag of ‘penalty-taker” might do to the rest of his game. Higuain himself acknowledges that the Napoli coach Mauricio Sarri has played a huge role in his confidence this season, making him feel wanted. If he can carry that sense of self-belief into the national set-up then Argentina may at last have a spearhead to pull together a creative unit that often seems less than the sum of its parts.
Yet already there have been signs that Higuain’s confidence has begun to ebb. “Most players have arrived having played 60 or 70 games,” he said. “We’ve talked about it. It’s not just physical - it’s also a mental exhaustion.” It may be true, and it’s part of the reason other nations have brought slightly weakened squads.
For Brazil, the absence of Neymar may almost be a relief. He is their only real star, the main creative hub and the sole example of what a Brazilian player is supposed to look like. The result is that, for all his qualities - and he has improved dramatically over his time at Barcelona - when he plays for his country he is surrounded by a constant swirl of hype. Everything has to go through him, and the result is the sort of pressure that led to his red card and four-game suspension at last year’s Copa America. Without him, and with a less predictable game plan, Brazil looked rather more fluent, but they still lacked the guile to break down a dogged Paraguay in the quarter-final.
The insistence that this is a tournament to be used for development has prompted Dunga to name a young squad with nine players aged 23 or under - and no David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Fernandinho or Roberto Firmino - but it is still one that lacks much in the way of creativity. The loss of Douglas Costa to injury hasn’t helped, but it’s also the case that this is simply the way of modern football in Brazil: the magicians of old are a dying breed, replaced in an increasingly cynical football culture by technocratic chuggers. The last two tournaments - the 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany in the World Cup and the insipid quarter-final exit in the Copa America - have been humiliating for Brazil; making clear they’re not taking this seriously, and so providing a pre-emptive excuse, may be an effective way of lifting the pressure.
Argentina may be the side most desperate for success, but Uruguay will be equally determined to stop them. It sometimes feels as though the whole of Uruguayan football culture is simply an attempt to spite Argentina, but it has made them the most successful side in Copa America history and preventing Argentina pulling level with them with 15 titles is significant motivation.
They have started World Cup qualification impressively, despite the absence of Luis Suarez to suspension. The key to that has been a solid core, with Egidio Arevalo Rios protecting the centre-back pairing of Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez and their hope that that defensive security plus Suarez might make them contenders. Suarez’s hamstring injury, though, means he will miss at least the first couple of group games.
Their veteran coach Oscar Tabarez, meanwhile, has been clear in his scepticism about the tournament and its scheduling. “It’s a very different Copa America,” he said. “I wouldn’t dare to call it a Copa America - for me the Copa America is something else. It’s being played all over the USA,” said Tabarez. “I don’t like this. The teams who reach the final will have had to travel across the entire nation. The USA is strikingly big, and with the heat that is likely in June and the distances involved, this increases the level of demand being made on the players.”
Chile, who won the tournament last year, have stuttered since bringing their 99-year wait for a trophy to an end and, while theirs is a settled squad with a clear plan, they have lacked a little sparkle since the resignation of Jorge Sampaoli. Colombia have the players to make an impact but they seem still to be struggling to adapt to a post-Falcao world and were a major disappointment in Chile a year ago.
The North American challenge essentially boils down to the USA and Mexico. Perhaps home advantage will inspire the US but, after a dreadful 2015, with Jozy Altidore injured and with doubts beginning to be raised - at last - about Jurgen Klinsmann’s odd brand of self-help sloganeering and tactical inefficiency, a serious title bid looks remote.
Mexico, though, with four wins out of four in World Cup qualifying as part of a 17-game unbeaten run, are perhaps more plausible candidates. They’re yet to concede in five games under Juan Carlos Osorio and have in Javier Hernandez a striker in lethal form. “We want to be among the top three and hopefully reach the final,” Osorio said. Given the draw, it’s a very attainable goal.
But realistically, Argentina are overwhelming favourites. Not for the first time it may be that their toughest opponent turns out to be themselves.