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Chile welcomes Copa America amid FIFA scandal

Jefferson Bernardes, AFP | Brazil's football team pose during a training session ahead of Copa America 2015 in Chile

The Copa America regional football tournament kicks off Thursday, with hosts Chile eager to claim a historic first title and Brazil – epically humiliated by Germany last year – geared up to make amends with fans back home.

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South America’s 10 national squads, plus tournament guests Mexico and Jamaica, are facing off in the 99-year-old continental championship that risks being overshadowed by revelations of widespread corruption by world football bosses at FIFA.

Defending champion Uruguay are vying to keep the regional trophy, but expect stiff competition from Brazil, Argentina and Chile – all of whom excelled in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but ultimately walked away from football’s big fiesta empty-handed.

Hometown heroes Chile face potential dark horse Ecuador on Thursday in the National Stadium in the capital of Santiago at the start of a three-week tournament, which stars four countries in FIFA’s global top 10 and a long list of the sport’s idols.

The other two teams in group A, Bolivia and Mexico, will play in the coastal tourist hub of Viña del Mar on Friday. Group B includes Argentina, Jamaica, Paraguay and Uruguay. Group C features Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.

The National Stadium will also be the venue for the Copa America final on July 4.

Argentina healthy, Uruguay sans Suarez

Ranked three worldwide, Argentina are the favourites going into the competition, with captain Lionel Messi and fellow-striker Carlos Tevez leading their European clubs, Barcelona and Juventus respectively, to the Champion’s League final on June 6.

Argentina boast further firepower from Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, Manchester United’s Angel Di Maria, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) teammates Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi, plus they have few injuries to complain about despite long seasons across the Atlantic.

Uruguay have won more Copa America titles than any other team, but their campaign this year will be marked by notable absences. Without strikers Diego Forlan, retired from international duty, and Luis Suarez, still banned for last year’s biting incident, Uruguay will largely rely on Edison Cavani for points. The PSG forward was one of the top scorers in France’s Ligue 1 this year, but has often failed to deliver in crunch matches.

Brazil in a rut, Chile at home

Brazil may be facing a similar challenge, with Barcelona striker Neymar Jr. enjoying scant help on offense. The team has also arrived in Chile with a dark cloud hanging over them: the memory of their dramatic 7-1 meltdown against Germany in the World Cup semi-final 11 months ago. Observers say players and fans alike are still struggling to sober up from the dizzying defeat.

“Worse than too much pressure is the total lack of pressure,” Antero Greco, a renowned Brazilian football journalist, told FRANCE 24. “Brazilian fans are dejected and have little confidence in the national team… If Brazil lose [Copa America] it will not be a national disappointment. It will be seen as another stumble during a difficult period for the country.”

Chile goes into the tournament with several advantages, including playing on home turf. A relatively weak group A should allow “La Roja” to secure a comfortable spot in the knockout stage. Veteran Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal and Arsenal striker Alexis Sanchez proved during the World Cup they could run with the best, almost eliminating Brazil back then. They know they have the best chance in decades to give Chile its first-ever Copa America title.

Uncomfortable silence?

Greco said the Copa America usually delivers few surprises because the teams are so familiar with each other. But this edition of the tournament may have to contend with some unexpected moments, with the ball rolling amid twin criminal probes into bribes and bank fraud at FIFA.

Two former presidents of CONMEBOL – the regional federation that organises Copa America – and two other regional football chiefs were among nine FIFA officials indicted by US prosecutors in May on charges of bribery and money laundering.
Several Latin American sports executives were also indicted on allegations they paid more than $150 million in bribes to the organisation in order to secure broadcast and sponsorship deals.

“Copa America is part of the mountain of FIFA scandals,” Greco said “It’s impossible to disassociate this competition from the people who have hurt the sport.”

But the Sao Paulo-based journalist said teams would likely skirt questions related to the scandal. “There was an informal suggestion to avoid the subject. The excuse is that the players and coaches have nothing to do with what FIFA officials do. There is this kind of denial that it does’t affect them,” added Greco.

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