For the first time since 1997, the Copa América will be preceded by a qualifying round. The new century arrived with changes in South American football, which was organized in the European style and stopped playing its most important competition every two years. Then, the World Cup qualification filled more spaces and became the most competitive competition in the region. Today, the Covid 19 pandemic forced to modify the calendars and to revive old sensations. And some are not very pleasant, like the one that coaches have when deciding which players to use in each match.
In 1997 a qualifying round was played on June 8 and only three days later the Copa América began in Bolivia. Brazil, the current world champion at that time, and Paraguay, benefiting from the free date, were the only selected ones who were exclusively prepared for the oldest tournament in the world. The other eight South American teams had to train for both challenges almost simultaneously and the vast majority chose to prioritize their search for a ticket to the World Cup.
Only Bolivia and Venezuela played the World Cup qualification and the Cup with the same teams. Colombia used similar names, but did not bring its star Carlos Valderrama to Bolivia. Argentina traveled without figures such as Roberto Ayala, Matías Almeyda, Diego Simeone, Hernán Crespo and Ariel Ortega; Uruguay dispensed with Paolo Montero, Pablo Bengoechea, Fabián O’Neil and Darío Silva; Chile by Marcelo Salas and Iván Zamorano; Ecuador by Iván Hurtado, Ulises De la Cruz, Alberto Montaño and Agustín Delgado; and Peru by Nolberto Solano, Flavio Maestri and Roberto Palacios. It was, as is clear, a devalued Copa América in which Brazil took advantage of its opportunity and Bolivia localized it.
Today, the situation seems to be different. The dilemma is not so pronounced and the coaches are in a position to count on the vast majority of their players to play both championships. In any case, the significance of the challenges raises the dilemma: is it necessary to prioritize or can you compete in the same way in Qualifiers and Copa América?
One of the difficulties posed by national team football today is the little work time that the coaching staff have. Footballers play a few games per year with their national teams and do so almost without training with the group. These weeks of June can be a great opportunity to strengthen virtues, correct defects and work much better facing a year and a half that will end with the World Cup in Qatar.
If, as expected, most of the teams play both qualifying dates and the Copa América in Argentina and Colombia with the same squads, several will finish the journey with nine games played in just over a month. In today’s football, it is almost impossible to find a similar circumstance, that’s why DTs will try to take advantage of this time with the men who best adapt to their ideas.
But not everything is positive. The international hiatus comes at the end of a long European season, which started late because of the pandemic and did so almost without preparation. Most South American players will come with a large number of games on their backs and it may be necessary to dose efforts. It will depend on the proper names and the needs of the teams. Which brings us back to the question … what should be prioritized?
The quickest answer is “the World Cup”. Nothing beats it in importance and the South American road is too difficult to relax. Therefore, it is clear that the ten selected first will put the objective in the two qualifying matches, without looking beyond that horizon. Although the Playoffs are just starting, recovering from a bad start is very difficult and Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela already have little room for error. On the other hand, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay cannot lower the intensity after a good start.
The Copa América gives prestige and is one of the two most valuable continental tournaments in the world. Nobody will despise it and it will be played with the best, but always with a clear horizon: Qatar 2022.