SANTA CLARA, United States: A star-studded celebration of the world’s oldest international football tournament will get under way in California on Friday (Saturday in Manila), when the United States takes on Colombia to open the Copa America Centenario.
Sixteen teams from across the Americas have gathered in the United States for a one-off edition of the Copa America, which is being staged to mark the tournament’s 100th anniversary.
Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and James Rodriguez are among the stars due to be in action throughout the June 3-26 tournament, which is taking place despite a troubled build-up dogged by corruption allegations that threatened to derail the event.
Ten teams from South America are joined by six teams from the North America, Central America and Caribbean region (CONCACAF), in what is arguably the biggest tournament to be staged on US soil since the 1994 World Cup.
The tournament could potentially be a sneak preview of the 2026 World Cup, which US officials have signaled they intend to mount a bid for as football in the United States steadily grows in popularity.
The gleaming Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara—home of the San Francisco 49ers and the venue for this year’s Super Bowl—is expected to be close to its 68,500 capacity on Friday for the USA’s Group A opener against Colombia.
Whether spectator demand for other matches will be as high is doubtful; few are expecting matches involving the tournament minnows to be sell-outs.
In comments to Sports Illustrated, United States Soccer Federation chief Sunil Gulati said he expected the tournament to meet its targets.
“It’s a big event, and I think our goals will be met by the time the event is over in terms of attendance and interest,” Gulati said.
“There’s a lot of star power, and we open with a great game with the US and Colombia.”
Most teams have chosen full-strength squads, although injuries and the proximity of the Olympics have deprived Brazil of several first choice players including Barcelona superstar Neymar.
“Everyone has brought the best players who are available to them and they’re taking it seriously. That’s a plus,” said Gulati.
That the tournament is taking place at all is something of a logistical triumph.
Although first announced in 2014, the fate of the event hung in the balance for much of 2015 after the arrest and indictment of several of the officials from South America and CONCACAF responsible for dreaming up the tournament.
When plans for the tournament were launched at a glitzy event in Miami two years ago, CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb stood proudly alongside South American federation (CONMEBOL) chief Eugenio Figueredo.
‘World Cup of fraud’
Both Figueredo and Webb — as well as former CONMEBOL chief Nicolas Leoz — are accused of pocketing millions of dollars in bribes linked to the award of media rights for the tournament, part of a scam dubbed a “World Cup of Fraud” by US prosecutors.
Organizers will hope that the sleazy background will be forgotten once the action finally gets under way.
Messi and Argentina will be aiming to win the country’s first major title since the 1993 Copa America after a series of recent near-misses.
Messi, who was late to join the Argentina squad after appearing at his tax fraud trial in Spain on Thursday, is a doubt for Argentina’s opening game against Chile in Santa Clara next Monday. Panama and Bolivia complete Group D.
The USA meanwhile aim to get off to a winning start against Colombia on Friday as they seek to navigate a difficult group which also includes Costa Rica and Paraguay.
“The expectations are that we want to grow as a soccer nation, we want to send strong signals out to South America, to Europe that we’re learning,” USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Five-time World Cup winners Brazil will be favored to emerge from Group B, where they face Ecuador, Haiti and Peru.
The Brazilians open against Ecuador at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl on Saturday — scene of their victory at the 1994 World Cup final.
Mexico and Uruguay will be expected to progress from Group C, with Jamaica and Venezuela completing the field.