You can measure the passage of soccer eras by international tournaments. And even though the last Copa America was played in 2016, the atmosphere of the sport feels longer than three years ago both on and off the field. That feeling of the manipulation of time may be partially a byproduct of the intensity of social media proliferating soccer into our everyday lives with narratives changing on a daily basis. The game has already moved on tactically and narratively from the 2018 World Cup, giving extra space and distance from an event that was played one year ago, much less a tournament from 2016. Chile defeated Argentina in the final in penalties, with Gonzalo Higuain missing another open chance to break their international losing streak. Alexis Sanchez, who would score 24 goals in 38 matches with Arsenal the following season, took home the Golden Ball award as the top player in the tournament. Juan Antonio Pizzi continued Marcelo Bielsa’s vision for Chile, expanding on Jorge Sampaoli’s triumph a year earlier. Tata Martino found disappointment on the other end.
Three years later, Pizzi is out of a job after resigning from his Saudi Arabia position in January. Martino resigned from the national team position following the loss, then was hired by Atlanta FC as the first manager in club history and oversaw the most modern side in MLS history. Sanchez, meanwhile, heads into the tournament after scoring just 1 goal in 9 Premier League starts for Manchester United this season. Higuain retired from the national team after their loss to France in the World Cup round of 16. Messi still hasn’t won at the international level and is tasked with the burden of representing an entire national team, again. That timeline, with its successes and failures, titles and sackings, is an example of how a figure’s sporting career is defined by clusters and moments of highs and lows. Players grow older, managers move on to new clubs, while a few main themes remain frozen in time.
1993 is the year that hangs over this iteration of the tournament, which has also been a theme that has followed every tournament that Argentina has played in during this Messi era. It’s been 26 years since the senior side won a major international tournament. Their current manager Lionel Scaloni, a vestige from last season’s World Cup disaster under Jorge Sampaoli, reflects how there is no manager left to turn to for the remaining years of Messi’s international career. Sampaoli was supposed to be their bold move - so what comes next? In a move back to the very basics of strategy, Scaloni said that Argentina will do well if Messi can replicate his Barcelona form on the international stage.
Though Brazil are the favorites as they’ve won every Copa America played at home, and despite failing to make it out of the group stages in 2016. Neymar will miss the tournament with an ankle injury, but his absence highlights the modernity of Brazil’s remaining pieces in attack in Coutinho, Firmino, David Neres, Richarlison, and Willian. Brazil’s attack, whether played in a front four or a front three, features the foundational pieces of Europe’s most direct, vertical sides in Liverpool, Ajax, and Chelsea. In their last match of the group stages three years ago in which they needed a result to make the knockout stage, then-manager Dunga lined up Gabriel Barbosa as striker with Lucas Lima behind him.
Dunga was fired following the tournament and has not managed since. Brazil found immediate success under the compact style of Tite, who has won 29 games in 36 matches since taking over the national team job. In contrast with the stylistic directionless from 2016, Brazil’s football federation president Rogerio Caboclo came out this week and said that Tite will remain the national team manager “regardless of the result.” The passage of time represents the aging of teams and players, but on the other side, it is also a long enough space for a side to regenerate themselves with a new identity.
After the second leg of this year’s Copa Libertadores Finals was played in Spain, Conmebol president Alejandro Dominguez vowed that South America’s most prestigious club match would not leave the continent any time soon. Dominguez even went as far as changing the final from two legs to one match in Santiago, Chile.
Dominguez, on the other hand, has done little to update the continent’s premier international showcase in an ever-changing world both on and off the field. Since Chile’s win in 2016, UEFA created an entirely new competition in the Nations League to critical acclaim. Alongside rumors of a potential European Super League, the signal is of a governing body willing to constantly innovate to meet the demands of how they perceive how supporters will access content and interact with the game in the future. Innovation within the European game lie in recontextualizing existing assets to maximize prestige, value, resources, and the world’s attention. In context to the seemingly paradigm-shifting movement of the European game both at club and country level, what is the role of the Copa America on the international football calendar in 2019, and beyond?
The Copa America has actively resisted structural change, most recently in rejecting the U.S. Soccer Federation’s proposal for an expanded 16-team competition in 2020 that would include 6 teams from Concacaf. Conmebol’s reasoning was that a new tournament would have “ignored more than 103 years” of Copa America tradition. The tournament’s biggest recent innovation was in shifting to a schedule of holding the tournament in even years to align with the European Championship. Due to the timing of the announcement, there will be a Copa America next year hosted by Argentina and Colombia.
Though we may not even be asking questions through the right lens. If the European game is defined by responding to a moving landscape, Conmebol can differentiate through stories of their 103 years of non-change. Dominguez said that the federation will generate a record $500 million in income this year, lead by a $1.4 billion media deal for the rights to broadcast the Copa Libertadores through 2022. Perhaps there is no need for an upheaval on the level of Nations League or a potential tournament featuring Concacaf teams. Maybe that focus on tradition doesn’t reflect a lack of desire in keeping up with the smartphone-influenced times, but is a business-decision reflected within how consumers engage with the overall meaning and story of the tournament. In 2019, the Copa America is defined as much by what it isn’t in the modern soccer age, as much as what it strives to represent.