Most of us view and consume football through a euro-centric lens. The world’s best players, coaches and teams play in the top 5 leagues and more often than not the winner of the Champions League is considered the best club team in the world. On the international stage, 70% of the top 10 ranked teams are European; with only Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay making up the remaining 30%.
Despite the hegemony European football exercises over the rest of the world, South America is considered as the pioneer in international and regional football tournaments. The Copa America, which kicks off on Sunday, is the oldest still running international football competition. Officially founded in 1916 after a trial run in 1910, the first iteration of the cup featured 4 teams and was hosted in Argentina. Structured as a round robin tournament, teams were awarded 2 points for a win, 1 for a draw and 0 for a loss with Uruguay being crowned champions after a 0-0 draw against Argentina in the final match.
Mirroring the situation we are faced with today, the 1918 edition was suspended to due to the Spanish Flu and had to be played a year later in Brazil. The following interwar period was marred by a lack of consistency in staging the tournament and disagreements between the Argentinian and Uruguayan FAs that affected participation. Throughout its existence, CONMEBOL has wrestled with different ways to structure the tournament; inviting non members to take part such as Mexico who have regularly featured since 1993. Other invitees include Japan, Qatar and the U.S. Japan and Qatar featured most recently in 2019, finishing 9th and 10th respectively, ahead of regulars Ecuador and Bolivia.
For fans outside South America it can seem as if the rules and exceptions affecting the Copa America are constantly evolving and in many ways they are. Throughout the years CONMEBOL has moved the tournament around the calendar to bring it into harmony with the European summer tournament schedule. Until the mid 80s, the Copa America was held across multiple months as the South American football season follows the annual calendar rather than starting in August as in Europe. However, due to the increasing number of players moving to Europe, the organisers decided that the tournament should be held in June or July to make it easier for players to be released from their clubs.
CONMEBOL has also enacted changes in how often the tournament is held. Until January 2001 the Copa America was, more often than not, played every 2 years. From 2001 organisers decided that the tournament should be held every 3-4 years in order to prevent clashes with the World Cup. Despite this, exceptions have been made such as for the 2016 tournament which marked 100 years since it began. The Copa America is set to revert to being held every 4 years from the 2024 iteration.
Rightly or wrongly South American football is known for its controversy and chaos, often contributing to its exciting nature. This year’s Copa America is no different, with disagreements and threats of boycotts by participants largely in response to the handling of the Covid crisis amongst other factors. Initially set to be co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia, Colombia lost its rights due to the political tension and weeks of mass protests that have gripped the country. The tournament was then subsequently stripped from Argentina after it was deemed that the nation had not dealt with Covid in a way that would have made the tournament safe for fans and players. Just 7 days ago, Brazil was given the right to host, despite huge public dissatisfaction and the national team threatening to boycott.
On a more positive note, the Copa America never fails to disappoint despite the politics off the pitch. Crazy moments are guaranteed, just cast your mind to when Argentina’s Martin Palermo missed 3 penalties in one game during the tournament in 1999. He still holds the world record for that. This year there are a number of narratives that will contribute to the excitement, none more so than whether this will be Messi’s final chance at major glory with Argentina. After being postponed for a year, vicious rivalries will be rehashed between Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Just 7 days before the tournament is set to kick off, not one fan dares to confirm whether it will actually go ahead. Whatever happens at the Euros this year, be sure to keep an eye on the Copa America.