Copa America preview: Brazil on home soil, Messi’s last shot at (int’l) glory?

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For the first time in 30, the country of Brazil will host the Copa America when the 2019 edition kicks off on Friday. The pressure to win on home soil, as it was when Selecao hosted the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, will be immense.

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For the first time in a long time, there is no clear-cut favorite. The best team in South America is anybody’s guess.

Tite’s Brazil was seen as a heavy favorite a couple weeks ago, but will now have to cope without its brightest superstar and captain, Neymar, after he suffered an ankle injury during a pre-Copa friendly against Qatar. Brazil can still be called slight favorites, with many thanks to the attacking duo of Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus, but more than a few defensive questions must be answered: most notably, does this veteran group of defenders, with just three of eight players under 30 years of age (an average of 58 international caps), have one more major tournament left in it?

All of the attention that will inevitably be paid to Brazil could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for some of the tournament’s other heavy hitters, particularly the two-defending champions from Chile. Lionel Messi and Argentina, who have reached four of the last five Copa finals (2004, 2007, 2015 and 2016) but lost each and every one of them, also fit that billing.

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Chile hope to squeeze one last run out of the Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas and Gary Medel era, which is a slightly risky proposition given each of their injury histories and their slightly advanced ages (31 years on average). There’s also a small matter of who’ll start in goal: 31-year-old Gabriel Arias is the most experienced of the bunch, but he’s won just six caps in his career and has never played club soccer outside of South America.

Argentina, on the other hand, are about as inexperienced as a national team of their prestige could be. Messi, Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero have 130, 97 and 90 caps to their names, respectively, followed by Nicolas Otamendi with 60. After them, Ramiro Funes Mori is the next-highest, with 25. 12 of the 23 players making up Lionel Scaloni’s squad have made single-digit appearances for the Albiceleste. Argentina’s last major trophy came at the 1993 Copa America, when Messi was six years old. Now 31 years old, the undisputed greatest player of all time might be down to his last (realistic) chance at winning a major tournament.

Colombia will again be the favorite pick as “dark horse,” but their route to a first major trophy since winning the 2001 Copa will be difficult: facing Messi and Co., in the two sides’ Group B opener on Saturday (6 p.m. ET). Japan and Qatar, the two non-South American teams invited to participate in 2019, will be fascinating wild cards as well.

What we’re saying is: Brazil and Argentina taking a small (or large) step back to the pack should make for one of the best editions of the Copa we’ve ever seen, and just about every game should be appointment television beginning with Friday’s curtain raiser between Brazil and Bolivia (8:30 p.m. ET).

Quick facts

Final date: July 7

Semifinal dates: July 2 and 3

Current holders: Chile (2015 and 2016)

Most titles: Uruguay (15), Argentina (14), Brazil (8), Chile (2), Paraguay (2), Peru (2)

Most goals: Zizinho and Norberto Mendez (17)

Most goals (active): Paolo Guerrero and Eduardo Vargas (11)

This weekend’s Copa America schedule

Friday

Brazil v. Bolivia — 8:30 p.m. ET

Saturday

Venezuela v. Peru — 3 p.m. ET
Argentina v. Colombia — 6 p.m. ET

Sunday

Paraguay v. Qatar — 3 p.m. ET
Uruguay v. Ecuador — 6 p.m. ET