Let’s start with a disclaimer. The Copa America is not, and has not been for some time, an equivalent of the European Championship. That role is carried out by South America’s World Cup qualification campaign, where the teams meet at full strength in front of packed crowds.
Little of this applies to the Copa America. But that does not necessarily make the whole thing an irrelevance. Nowadays, the tournament does indeed fit into the cracks of the World Cup qualifiers. But these can be deep and significant cracks – as a glance back at the last Copa America makes clear. In hindsight it can be argued that Colombia 2001 was where Brazil started to win the World Cup, and where Argentina started to lose it.
The Argentinians coasted through the qualifiers for Korea/Japan without ever needing to go beyond Plan A. Come the World Cup they looked tired and predictable, full of possession but with no penetration.
They had planned to use the 2001 Copa America to look at options and fringe players, but worried by the terrorist threat, they did not attend the tournament. Perhaps they would have done better in Asia if the likes of Javier Saviola and Andres D’Alessandro had been funnelled through the Copa America into the World Cup squad.
Brazil used the tournament in Colombia to make the bold switch to three centre-backs. At the time, with an experimental side, it failed. But it was a different matter a year later when the wing-backs able to take advantage of extra defensive cover were Cafu and Roberto Carlos. Without the opportunity to test the system in battle, Brazil’s then coach Luiz Felipe Scolari may have been reluctant to make the switch.
This, in a nutshell, is the importance of the Copa America. It is competitive without – except for the hosts – being a matter of life and death. Coaches can experiment and teams can regroup before heading back, reinvigorated, to the more important task of World Cup qualification.
There is a second main reason, and one with long-term ramifications, for the continued existence of the Copa America. It presents a unique, and very necessary, opportunity to invest in stadiums. Most South American countries are dominated by a single city, usually the port through which local raw materials were dispatched to the First World.
Football in the continent suffers from this historical imbalance between a strong port and an undeveloped hinterland. The major teams are usually clustered in this one city, an excessive centralisation that leaves so much of the country’s potential untapped.
Peru is an excellent example. It staged the Copa America five times between 1927 and 1957. On each occasion, all the games were played in Lima’s National stadium. But for this year’s tournament they have made a point of using seven cities, making an investment in infrastructure that should bring lasting benefits to Peruvian football.