Copa America hosts Brazil favourites under pressure of a nation
The draw for the 2019 Copa America could hardly have been kinder for hosts Brazil in this centenary year from when they first had the tournament on home soil. They won it then for the first time, and won it on the three subsequent occasions when the tournament was held in the country.
Brazil have, then, a 100 percent record to maintain at home -- and a dreadful recent tournament record to forget. In the past three World Cups and three Copa Americas, Brazil have reached only one semifinal -- and no one needs to be reminded of the score of the 2014 flameout against Germany.
They badly need a triumph, and coach Tite is well aware that his job could depend on lifting the trophy July 7. Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru, their group foes, are as good as it gets outside the top seeds. And if they win the group, Brazil's quarterfinal will be against one of the teams who finished third, which could theoretically include one of the invited guests in Japan or Qatar.
Plenty could go wrong, though. Venezuela held Brazil to a goalless draw in the 2011 competition, and Peru kicked them out of the Copa America Centenario in 2016. And, as survivors from the 2014 World Cup team will recall, playing at home brings pressures of its own.
Nonetheless, the road to the semifinals seems clear enough and there is an extra reason to see Brazil as pre-tournament favourites. The Copa currently holds a distinct position in the calendar of South American national-team football: It kicks off a new phase of competitive action leading up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Since the 2018 World Cup there have been nothing but friendlies. Those teams who failed to make it to Russia have not played a competitive match since October 2017. Some of those who did play in the 2018 edition are in the early stages of a rebuilding process. Nothing could show that more clearly than the game which stands out as a potential highlight: Argentina against Colombia in Salvador on the second day of the competition.
Argentina are led by Lionel Scaloni, an inexperienced caretaker coach who is unlikely to stay on after the tournament unless Argentina win the trophy. Colombia do not even have a coach. They are currently negotiating with the much travelled Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese now in charge of Iran. Queiroz or another boss will have precious little time to implant his ideas in time for the Copa; he will have only the March FIFA dates before the squad is called up.
Colombia are an extreme example, but a number of teams will run the risk of going to Brazil in an undercooked state. Indeed, some, such as Ecuador boss Hernan Dario Gomez, are openly saying that the priority is to emerge from the tournament with a team ready to play the next set of World Cup qualifiers.
Japan and Qatar, though, will not be undercooked. The two invited teams will be battle-hardened after their exploits in the Asian Cup. Japan, who are in the semifinals in Asia, are a much stronger side than they were in 1999, the previous time they were invited to the Copa, and Qatar have been one of the surprises of the ongoing continental cup. It will be very interesting to see how they progress.
Group C looks like the best balanced, most difficult of the draw, with Uruguay, Ecuador, Japan and reigning champions Chile. Uruguay can be considered second-favourites after Brazil. Statistically, they were the best South American team at the World Cup. They hope to have the Luis Suarez-Edinson Cavani duo still close to their peak, with their highly promising young midfield a year older, wiser and more consolidated since Russia. And they have a track record of ruining the host's party, as they did to Brazil all the way back in 1950 to win the World Cup, and more recently in Argentina eight years ago, when they won a record 15th Copa title.
The battle will ebb and flow between June 14 and July 7 in six stadiums in five different cities -- a much more compact affair than the 2014 World Cup. Assuming they win the group, Brazil will still have to clock up some air miles -- up to Salvador in the northeast for a group game, down to Porto Alegre in the south for the quarterfinal. And, they hope, all leading to a lap of honour in Rio de Janeiro's illustrious Maracana stadium.