On May 1, 2014 the stage was set. Jeffrey Webb and Eugenio Figueredo – then presidents of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL respectively – sat down together onstage in a swanky hotel in Miami Beach and announced the Copa América Centenario, a tournament celebrating the centennial anniversary of the classic Copa América. They proclaimed with a confident swagger how the contest was projected to have a unique layout, with an expanded 16 participating teams (from the usual 12), ten from CONMEBOL and six from CONCACAF, and to top it all off, it was to be set in USA. With a glistening smile, Webb looked out over the sea of cameras at the press conference and said: “The 2016 Copa América will be the biggest international sporting event that the U.S. has hosted since the 2002 Winter Olympics and the biggest football event since the 1994 World Cup”.
And he was right. For years, football fans in North America had been dreaming of a big tournament on home soil that would have the stature, elegance and allure of the European Championships (sorry, the Gold Cup).
What sweetened the deal even more was that the FIFA Executive Committee chose to bless this special, commemorative tournament by putting it on the Official FIFA Calendar, meaning that clubs are obliged to release all of their stars to their national teams.
Leo Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez, Alexis Sanchez, James Rodríguez? Playing with their national teams in chock-a-block full stadiums all over the US, in what will come to be a miniature World Cup? Yes, please. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, turns out: quite a lot.
As we know by now, the house of cards that was FIFA came down with a mighty force last year in May, thanks to a U.S. Department of Justice indictment and a little help from a couple of Swiss police raids. Among the 14 officials that were named in the indictment were the aforementioned Jeffrey Webb and Eugenio Figueredo, along with three other key names: father and son duo Hugo and Mariano Jinkis and Alejandro Burzaco, all involved with the media rights group Datisa.
Rather unsurprisingly, in all the allegations of corruption, one of the most highly anticipated tournaments in recent memory was included:
“In connection with the acquisition of the media rights to the Copa América and Centenario tournaments from CONMEBOL and CONCACAF, Datisa agreed to pay $110 million in bribes to the defendants Jeffrey Webb, Eugenio Figueredo, Rafael Esquivel (a Venezuelan CONMEBOL exec), José Maria Marin (the former Brazilian federation president) and Nicolas Leóz (the former CONMEBOL president), and several other soccer officials. Datisa agreed to make these payments at various times over the life of the contracts. At least $40 million has been paid to date”.
Quite predictably, this put the Copa América Centenario’s whole existence in considerable doubt. As the dust of the indictment was settling, the biggest barrier showed its face: Datisa still owned the marketing rights to the tournament despite the serious bribe allegations. Numerous US Soccer sources made statements about the kerfuffle of corruption within the North, Central and South American football ranks and they all mentioned how the continued involvement of Datisa would prove to be the biggest hindrance in the tournament taking place in USA. Conditions were laid out by the US Soccer Federation to CONMEBOL and it was reported that the governing body had agreed to some of those. However, the biggest noise from CONMEBOL was their public pressure on the US Soccer Federation by announcing that the tournament would take place in 2016 as scheduled no matter what, ignoring the fact that it wasn’t completely their decision to make. The tournament couldn’t take place in USA unless the US Soccer Federation agreed to it.
Despite the playground drama that ensued, it was finally announced in October last year that CONMEBOL and CONCACAF had ended their relationships with the marketing company Datisa and the much-longed-for tournament was back on track and set to be played as planned.
Stadiums and host cities have since been announced, ticket sales have been booming just as expected and the stage is all set for a fantastic football feast.
So, predictions. Will it be a year of upsets or will the cup be clenched by one of the favourites? Many are wondering whether or not teams will take this competition seriously, since it’s purely ceremonial and not really decisive in any way; the winner will not receive an invitation to the 2017 Confederations Cup, as Chile have already qualified by winning the 2015 Copa América. Despite that, there’s not a single doubt in my mind that teams will be fighting tooth and nail for the glory of being the centennial champions of Copa América, with bragging rights stretching at least another 100 years.
On February 21 the groups were drawn, as can be seen here below:
Now, with absolutely no offence to any of the lesser-established countries in this tournament, it’s pretty safe to say that the big names have got it fairly easy, with the exception of the hosts, United States. It will be interesting to see if they make it out of their group or not, but I’d be willing to wager that they will, together with Colombia. From Group B, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Brazil will top their group, likely to be joined by Ecuador. Mexico and Uruguay will probably advance from their group quite easily, too, and Argentina and Chile look just as likely to go through.
If I’m right in my predictions, this is how the tournament will unfold:
Colombia will progress to the Semi-Finals by beating Ecuador, where they will meet Argentina who will have beaten Mexico. Argentina will overcome the challenge of Colombia to progress to the final. In the other half of the draw, Brazil will defeat hosts USA in the Quarter Finals whilst Uruguay will triumph over current Copa America holders Chile. Neymar‘s Brazil will overwhelm Suarez‘s Uruguay to meet old and eternal rivals Argentina in the final of the Copa America Centenario.
Not that I’m known for accurate predictions really, but if that doesn’t make your mouth water, then I don’t know what will. Needless to say that it’s going to be incredibly exciting to see what happens this summer.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that June and early July 2016 will be packed with high quality games, as the Copa América Centenario and Euro 2016 will be played at the same time.