How Copa America could shape 2022 World Cup hopes for South American nations
In the Copa America final on July 7, Everton gave Brazil the lead, and Paolo Guerrero equalised for Peru before the hosts sealed a 3-1 win. Just three days later, both were in action for their clubs in the quarterfinals of the Brazilian Cup.
Once domestic football starts up, international tournaments are quickly brushed into the past, but it would be a mistake to do that to the Copa America. This year's tournament does not represent the end of a process; rather, it kicks off a new competitive cycle, which will take the teams through the end of 2022 with the World Cup in Qatar. With that in mind, in what state do the 10 South American nations leave the Copa, and how might the competition have an impact on the race for World Cup qualification in 2022?
The hosts can never afford to use the Copa as a mere laboratory. The pressure is always on to do well -- and that was especially true of Brazil in 2019, caught between a disappointing recent tournament record and their proud boast of having won every home Copa.
They lived up to their tradition with few alarms, conceding just once in six games. This triumph serves as a morale boost, and shores up relations with their fans for now. Problems remain -- the outstanding Dani Alves will surely not be around for the next World Cup, and the lack of penalty area presence made it hard for the team to get the first goal and open up the game. That exuberance in possession that the team had in late 2016 and during 2017 also does not appear with the same frequency.
A process of renovation has already happened with the attacking positions -- breakout star Everton is the biggest example -- and their defensive solidity makes it hard to believe that Brazil will have many problems qualifying for Qatar. They now have three years to prepare for the hurdle they have not been able to overcome in the last four World Cups -- meeting a major European side in the knockout stages.
Peru acquitted themselves well in the final, and even better in the semifinals. They can point to the fact that the only two defeats they suffered in the tournament were against Brazil. On the other hand, their haul of eight points from six games would leave them off the pace in a CONMEBOL qualification campaign.
Does this side still have more to give? Their one truly world-class player, Guerrero, cannot go on forever. It is hard to see where top-class replacements are coming from. Peru could be in for a tense ride in the bid to make it to a second straight World Cup.
Three wins from six games appear to have proved sufficient for Argentina caretaker coach Lionel Scaloni to earn the job on a permanent basis. His team undoubtedly improved during the competition, but much of this has to do with their dreadful start, for which Scaloni must take some of the blame.
He lacks experience and will find himself in a vulnerable position should Argentina make a bad start to the qualifiers, suffer a mid-campaign slump or fall short when they co-host next year's Copa. By the end of the tournament, Argentina were starting to build an interesting circuit of passing around Lionel Messi but the Barcelona star could face a suspension after his post-Copa comments. Whatever happens with Messi, Scaloni faces an urgent task discovering faster and better defenders, and without improvements in this sector, it is hard to imagine Argentina making a serious challenge in 2022 -- and easy to foresee a few slips along the way.
The 2019 Copa marks the end of the greatest era in the history of the Chilean national side. The team have aged together and a major rebuilding operation can no longer be postponed. With Chilean domestic football in a bad way, there are few obvious candidates to come in and freshen up the side.
Most of the smaller South American nations have at some point thrown up a golden generation. All have suffered to replace them, and now it would seem to be Chile's turn.
With 10 points from four games, Colombia had the best points-per-match ratio in the Copa, and bowed out on penalties without conceding a single goal.
They were fortunate not to concede against Chile in the quarterfinals, but new coach Carlos Queiroz can clearly build from a solid base, with quick and strong centre-backs well protected by holding midfielder Wilmar Barrios.
The coach, though, has a decision to make up front. How long will he persevere with his veteran captain Radamel Falcao? Colombia looked better with Duvan Zapata at centre-forward, and the time has surely come to reduce Falcao's role within the team. In general, Queiroz can look back fondly on his first tournament in charge of Colombia but the pressure will be much higher when Colombia co-host the next Copa. What happens there will shape the rest of the World Cup qualifiers.
After battering Peru in the quarterfinals only to lose on penalties, Uruguay had cause to regret not going further in the tournament. Overall progress, though, seems more than satisfactory. True, some of the veterans are coming toward the end, but interesting replacements are being groomed, and the re-emergence after injury of young all-round midfielder Federico Valverde is cause for celebration.
With the attacking strength in depth and tactical alternatives open to coach Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay would seem well on course to make it to a fourth consecutive World Cup.
It is a measure of how much progress Venezuela have made that they have the right to feel disappointed with their fate at the 2019 Copa. True, they were unlucky to lose both first-choice centre-backs for their quarterfinal against Argentina. That said, they only managed to score in one of their four matches -- against a weak Bolivia side -- when they would seem to have the firepower to do better.
Still, they can take huge heart from the goalless draw against Brazil -- even if VAR did get them out of trouble -- and can go into the qualification campaign with realistic expectations of making their World Cup debut in 2022.
Paraguay managed to hold both Argentina and Brazil to draws -- and yet coach Eduardo Berizzo might still be disappointed -- and not just because his team failed to win a game. Berizzo's idea is for a proactive team, pressing the opposition in their half of the field. The ease with which Qatar passed their way through the Paraguayan ranks in the opening game was a clear worry. Later performances -- especially the goalless draw with Brazil -- featured more traditional Paraguayan deep defence. Which way forward, does Berizzo go now? Paraguay, then, come out of the Copa in a state of some confusion.
For Ecuador the 2019 Copa was a disaster, leaving veteran coach Hernan Dario Gomez fighting for his job. He did himself few favours by talking down the importance of the tournament. He believed that he had forged a solid defence -- which promptly collapsed once the Copa began.
Ecuador find themselves worryingly between generations. Almost none of the team that took them to the 2014 World Cup are still operating at their best level, and it is still too soon for the youngsters who just finished third in the Under-20 World Cup. The altitude of Quito always gives them a hand in World Cup qualification -- but they will need to make rapid progress to be in serious contention for a place in Qatar.
Bolivia's three defeats confirmed the impression that they are South America's most feeble team -- away, that is, from the extreme altitude of La Paz.
Coach Eduardo Villegas proposes to construct a team of altitude specialists for the home World Cup qualifiers -- and a 100% record in La Paz would probably be good enough to make it to Qatar. But as soon as a single home point is dropped, the mathematics becomes more complicated. In practice, they will surely have to pick out some points on the road -- and this is currently hard to imagine. Villegas used the example of one of his players -- the right-sided midfielder Erwin Saavedra -- to stress that those who stand out in domestic Bolivian football can often be off the pace in the international game.