For the next three weeks, the pulse of South American futbol beats from Chile, where the continent’s 10 national teams plus invitees Mexico and Jamaica will battle it out for a piece of international silverware that’s been contested for 99 years.
This is the Copa América, a tournament renowned for its storied rivalries, vibrant fan support, politically-charged history, and incredible star power on the pitch; a competition which, for the past near-century, has ignited a continent.
With just days left until the tournament kicks off, we turned to the world’s greatest source for information on the tournament — Wikipedia — and came back up with a few gems. The Copa América, it turns out, is a weird, weird tournament. Here are a few reasons why:
1. The Mascot Blows
Since 1987, each iteration of the Copa América has included a mascot, but this year’s cuddly representative could be the worst. That might not seem so bad when you’ve only got a sample size of 12, but when you’re indisputably inferior to a plush representation of a tango singer from the 1930s and a one-dimensional crayon drawing, you’ve got a few problems.
Meet Zincha, a young Andean fox native to Chile. At first glance, that description may not seem so offensive, even coming across as a welcome respite from the overcomplicated justifications that follow modern mascots.
The real issues become apparent when you delve deeper. Zincha is a one-dimensional fox. Zincha is not cuddly. Zincha has sharp edges and is definitely not childproof. Zincha has mad eyebrows and a slight slice in one, presumably designed to appeal towards ‘urban’ fans. Zincha is not fun and family friendly. Zincha is not designed for kids.
Worse still is the fact that Zincha was created as a marketing ploy to squeeze cash out of South American fans. Before earning the name ‘Zincha,’ tournament organizers presented fans with three options, with the final name to be the one that garnered the most votes in a poll; a poll in which fans had to pay to take part. Weak, Chile.
2. Get ready for Luis Suarez! Actually, don’t. Actually, maybe you should.
Remember the halcyon days of the 2014 World Cup? Way back when men were men and a little ultra violence was a welcome addition to every match? The good old days when biting a man on the shoulder was just part of the game and not an indication of mental instability?
After making an appy polly loggy in the least meaningful way possible, Luis Suárez received a four-month ban from soccer, including a lengthy suspension from national team matches – a ban set to prevent Suarez from taking part in this year’s Copa América. That is, unless Uruguay gets its way.
In one of the most desperate attempts to reduce an athlete’s suspension in the history of sports, Uruguay’s Footballers’ Union reportedly considered challenging Suarez’s ban in the wake of ongoing investigations targeting FIFA’s corruption. The union released a statement in which it claimed Suarez “was a victim, without doubt, of this alleged corruption.”
Get us some moloko plus.
3. Winner heads to the Confederations Cup! But only if they want to.
Whether or not you consider the Confederations Cup a real tournament, there’s no doubt that it’s an entertaining competition. With the upcoming World Cup host nation, the reigning World Cup winner and all the continental champions taking part, it’s a fun tournament that perfectly straddles the line between international competition and Sunday pickup game. Moreover, it’s hard to argue that a dress rehearsal hurts any team who ventures to the World Cup the summer after.
That said, while the Confederations Cup bills itself as a collection of the world’s regional champions, that’s not necessarily true. Fun fact: the winners of the Copa América and European Championship can turn down the Confederations Cup. That’s right, the Confederations Cup is optional for Copa América winners, according to FIFA regulations.
Thinking back to grade school, it’s difficult to remember anyone who turned down optional field trips, but unsurprisingly, Germany have passed on the Confederations Cup multiple times — most recently in 2003 — likely staying home to catch up on homework that helps it maintain maximum efficiency.
As of yet, no Copa América winner has declined the Confederations Cup, but it’s important to remember that invited guests can’t claim South America’s spot, even if they win the tournament. Here’s hoping for a Mexican victory, just so Rafa Márquez has to immediately turn over the trophy to the runners-up.
4. Copa América has a ridiculous history
While the first Copa América was held in 1919 (this is a fact), the early history surrounding the tournament is a hazy one, marked by political conflict and a lack of defined tournament procedures. In essence, the history of the Copa América really depends on your loyalties.
After the first World Cup, political issues between Uruguay and Argentina prevented the tournament from being played between 1935 and 1939, after which the tournament returned, but as an irregular competition with an irregular format. During certain periods the tournament was held on a yearly basis; later, every two years, then three years, then four. Some years held multiple Copa América tournaments, while some nations did not consider the tournament a legitimate competition. Brazil once sent a team made up of players exclusively from Pernambuco. There were also periods during which the competition was played throughout the year with no fixed venue or hosts, and even one iteration in which the final was played over three legs. Some were deemed unofficial competitions, only later to be considered canon by CONMEBOL.
While it’s easy to point to ancient history and chuckle, the highlight for ‘most absurd Copa América’ goes to the 2001 competition, hosted by Colombia. With terrorist threats and security concerns surrounding the tournament, CONMEBOL actually canceled the competition on short-notice. Venezuela offered to step in as a replacement, but CONMEBOL ultimately allowed Colombia to host, but only after tournament stalwarts Argentina had pulled out.
One absent team might seem like the worst situation a tournament can confront, but matters were made worse after tournament invitees Canada also stepped out, following Argentina’s lead and allowing its players to return to their club teams. With two teams out of the picture, CONMEBOL scrambled and quickly invited Costa Rica and Honduras as replacements, with Honduras arriving just hours before their first match in a plane provided by the Colombian Air Force.
You couldn’t write better Copa América fan fiction if you tried.
5. Mexico returns as the awkward dinner guest
CONMEBOL only has 10 nations — a nice round number for party seating or spreadsheets, but less so for international soccer tournaments. To avoid the inevitable complications that come with structuring a competition around a number that doesn’t easily divide by three or four (the amount of teams typically found in an opening-stage group), CONMEBOL has invited two guest teams to every tournament since 1993. For the 2015 edition, those invitees will be CONCACAF teams Mexico and Jamaica.
Unlike Jamaica, who is making its debut, this isn’t actually Mexico’s first South American rodeo – far from it, in fact. El Tri has participated in every Copa América since 1993, meaning the team is practically part of the furniture. Intriguingly, Mexico has had more successful deep runs in that two-decade span than some South American teams have had in the tournament ever. Mexico’s only failed to escape the group once (last time, in 2011) and it’s reached the medal podium in five of its eight appearances, finishing third in 1997, 1999, and 2007, and losing in the final in 1993 and 2001.
Despite not fielding a first-choice squad for this year’s edition, we can only hope that this Mexican team defies the odds and goes all the way. We want to see as much of this as possible out of manager Miguel Herrera.
6. The Almighty Minnows
A tournament with so few teams, played so frequently, over so many years, seems like it would yield at least a modicum of success for everyone. That, however, is not the case for the lesser-known footballing nations of South America, Ecuador and Venezuela.
While Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina have won the tournament a total of 37 times between them — and even continental punching bags Bolivia have lifted a trophy — Ecuador and Venezuela haven’t even reached the medal podium once.
Venezuela didn’t enter until 1967, and it took 40 years just to get out of the first round. The team has advanced to the quarterfinals at the last two tournaments, however, including at the 2011 edition, when it drew Brazil, beat Chile, and featured striker Alejandro Moreno before he hung up his boots to offer Grade-A hot takes for the worldwide leader in sports.
Ecuador can also claim a fourth place finish or two, depending on who you ask. While it undeniably reached the semifinal of the 1993 tournament that it hosted (for which the mascot was Choclito, a cheery, patriotic ear of corn), it’s difficult to say with a straight face that it scaled similar heights in 1959. That tournament was one of two South American championships that year, one which only a handful of teams attended. Ecuador’s fourth-place finish actually occurred in a competition that featured five countries.
Hey, you’ve got to cling to something when your all-time Copa América goal differential is -182!
7. Hope for the Hosts
While it may seem strange given its recent World Cup thrills, host nation Chile does not have a distinguished record of international success. Sure, it finished third at the World Cup it hosted in 1962 (granted, after some less-than-hospitable play), won bronze at the 2000 Olympics (after beating the United States, 2-0), and has a handful of successful tournament runs, but it’s never secured a top-level international championship.
That’s not to say that chances haven’t come its way, especially in this competition. La Roja is four-time runner up, including a bizarre loss on aggregate goals in a three-legged final to Paraguay in 1979. (Paraguay won its home leg 3-0, Chile won its 1-0, and the two sides met at a near-empty stadium in Argentina for the third match, which ended in a 0-0 draw).
Though the field surrounding them in 2015 is plenty deep, this tournament might be its best chance to hoist a trophy. The Chileans have a golden generation of its own, led by the electric play of Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez (from Tocopilla, the same town as fellow artist Alejandro Jadorowsky, though perhaps he’s a bit more avant-garde) and Juventus’s creative hardman Arturo Vidal. With a nation behind them, hungry for success, only a fool would scoff at the title credentials of Jorge Sampaoli’s men.
To know what this team is capable of, one only has to recall last summer, when the team was a crossbar away from knocking Brazil out on home soil in the World Cup round of 16. (You needn’t remind the man who struck that shot, by the way; Mauricio Pinilla already has the scene tattooed on his back.)
8. Hey, hasn’t the United States been in this tournament?
It sure has!
The United States has taken part in Copa América three times. While it was knocked out in the group stage in 1993 and 2007, the Americans made it to the semifinals in 1995. Led by a steely defense and the scoring punch of Eric Wynalda, the Stars and Stripes drubbed tournament favorites Argentina, 3-0, and defeated rivals Mexico on penalty kicks en route to a fourth-place finish.
While that performance is looked upon with great fondness by American soccer fans, the Yanks’ biggest Copa América legacy is yet to come. Next year, the U.S. is scheduled to host the tournament to celebrate the competition’s centennial. The tournament’s fate is still somewhat in doubt, with various media outlets claiming that the recent FIFA scandals could result in its cancellation, but should it occur, Copa América Centenario would be the first version of the tournament ever held outside of South America.