SANTIAGO: Argentina are favorites to end a 22-year trophy drought when the Copa America kicks off here Thursday as a resurgent Brazil chase redemption following their ill-fated campaign at last year’s World Cup.
One of the most eagerly anticipated Copas in years gets under way in Santiago, with hosts Chile launching the three-week extravaganza of South American football against Ecuador in Group A at 8.30 p.m. (2330 GMT).
The 12-team tournament is a convention of football’s deadliest attacking talents, with a galaxy of Europe-based stars including Lionel Messi, Neymar, James Rodriguez, Alexis Sanchez and Edinson Cavani set to shine.
The competition also comes as a welcome relief to South America’s governing body CONMEBOL, which has been battered by corruption allegations in the ongoing scandal which has rocked world football.
Argentina captain Messi and Brazilian counterpart Neymar head to Chile less than a week after inspiring Barcelona to their Champions League triumph in Berlin on Saturday, the final act of a glittering treble-winning season.
Both no.10s are carrying the weight of expectation on their shoulders, with Messi determined to finally taste glory at a major international tournament with Argentina and Neymar aiming to erase the memory of last year’s World Cup.
Brazil on track
Brazil and Neymar meanwhile begin their campaign against Peru in Group C on Sunday.
Brazil’s biggest challenge of the first round comes three days later when they face Colombia on June 17, a rematch of the two sides’ bruising World Cup quarter-final last year.
That stormy encounter was notable for a series of rugged Brazilian challenges on Colombia star James, although Brazil’s 2-1 win came at a price, with Neymar suffering a broken vertebra that ended his World Cup.
Brazil’s World Cup dream was ultimately demolished by Germany in the next round, when the hosts were humiliated 7-1 in the semi-finals, before losing 3-0 to the Netherlands in an abject third place play-off display.
Fast forward a year however and Brazil, under the guidance of former coach and 1994 World Cup-winning captain Dunga, are back on track.
Dunga’s men have reeled off nine straight victories since the World Cup and will feel confident of reaching the Copa final in Santiago on July 4.
Dunga, who coached Brazil to their last Copa America win in 2007, believes the form of striker Neymar has been key to the revival.