SAO PAULO: They may boast seven World Cup victories between them and two of the game’s biggest stars in Lionel Messi and Neymar, but Argentina and hosts Brazil will be under immense pressure when the Copa America begins in June.
First they have a nerve-wracking wait ahead of Thursday’s draw in Rio de Janeiro to see who they will face in the group stages.
Argentina haven’t lifted a major tournament trophy in 26 years and while it has only been a dozen years for hosts Brazil, the trauma of their 2014 World Cup humiliation on home soil is still fresh in their collective memory.
The 7-1 thrashing inflicted by Germany in the semi-finals left a wound that only trophies could heal.
The two South American giants can ill afford a false step in such a competitive tournament.
Brazil failed to even make it out of the group stages last time around, their only victory coming against Haiti, while a 1-0 defeat to Peru sent them packing.
They haven’t gone beyond the quarter-finals since last lifting the trophy in 2007.
As for Argentina, they have lost four of the last five finals, three of those in penalty shoot-outs, meaning Barcelona great Messi has never won a major international honor with his country.
Messi’s participation is far from certain, though, as he hasn’t played for his country since Argentina were dumped out of the World Cup at the last 16 stage in Russia by eventual winners France.
They have played six friendlies since then, but Messi has stayed in Barcelona each time, allegedly to rest.
“I’m convinced that if he’s selected, he’ll play. It depends on the coach,” Argentinian federation president Claudio Tapia told TyCSports TV channel.
Messi has retired from international duties before, following Argentina’s penalty shoot-out loss to Chile in the Centenary final in the United States in 2016, only to reverse his decision a few months later to help guide a struggling Argentina to Russia.
Their World Cup campaign was a farce amid rumors of internal disputes between the coach, Jorge Sampaoli, and the players.
Sampaoli has gone to be replaced by interim boss Lionel Scaloni, but so far Messi, who hasn’t claimed to be retired this time, has stayed away.
The pressure will be greatest on Brazil coach Tite, though, after he signed a new contract despite the Selecao’s quarter-final elimination by Belgium at the World Cup.
He’s launched something of a revolution in terms of personnel since Russia.
“We have to win,” he told Estadao newspaper in November.
But he’s not planning on ditching an expansive style based around vibrant young players in favor of a more pragmatic approach to trying to win the trophy.
“I’ll take the risk of losing and being fired,” rather than compromising on his playing principles, he said.
The two powerhouse sides will be top seeds in the draw — Brazil are ranked third in the FIFA world list, with Argentina 11th — so at least they should be faced with a favorable pool.
But as Brazil found out last time in finishing below Peru and Ecuador in their pool, there are no weak teams in South America.
Uruguay, the other top seeds, are the most successful team in the competition’s history with 15 titles, one more than Argentina.
Boasting the likes of Edinson Cavani of Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona’s Luis Suarez, they reached the World Cup quarter-finals last year, only to lose to France.
Those players have won this competition before having last won the Copa in 2011.
Reigning two-time champions Chile will be in the pot of second seeds but led by Manchester United winger Alexis Sanchez they retain the kind of fire-power needed to go all the way once again.
Copa America it may be but this edition will have a distinctly Asian feel to it.
With one eye on the next World Cup in Qatar, the Gulf kingdom has been invited to the tournament for the first time, alongside Japan, who were also invitees in 1999, when they failed to win a game.