By Rupert Fryer | @Rupert_Fryer |
While the Copa America Centenario could well be taken with varying degrees of seriousness by a number of South America nations, for Argentina it will be top priority.
The Albiceleste will use the Rio Olympics simply to blood a new generation, not least because it already has its Olympic medals – two, in fact, after claiming back-to-back golds in 2004 and 2008 which, crucially, drew the program level with historic rivals Uruguay.
Those victories in Athens and Beijing did not quench the thirst, however, and the two-time world champion Argentina is desperate to grab its first senior title since the Copa America of 1993.
Uruguay has won two titles in the 23 years since a Gabriel Batistuta double saw off Mexico in the final in Ecuador, which have seen la Celeste leapfrog Argentina as the most successful team in the 100 years of the competition.
There is also the feeling that this is the best chance Argentina’s current side will have to lift a trophy of their own, with the overwhelming majority of its predicted starting XI either approaching, or just over, the 30 mark – at least eight of those who started last year’s Copa America final are expected to line up for Argentina’s opener in the U.S., fitness permitting.
After coming so close in Chile last year, the Copa America Centenario will undoubtedly provide the generation of Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero its best chance of ending the drought.
Lionel Messi - The world has been waiting for five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi to truly light up an international tournament.
He has, however, been building momentum in recent years. His best World Cup showing to date arrived in Brazil in 2014, inspiring his side to the final despite being nowhere near full fitness.
It was in the run-up to Brazil that Messi and Argentina finally clicked. Former coach Alejandro Sabella was appointed coach in 2011 and immediately cast aside an increasingly troublesome Carlos Tevez. Messi was handed the captaincy and set him free alongside Gonzalo Higuain and Aguero, supported by the shuttling Di Maria.
He hit 12 goals in Sabella’s first full year as coach – equaling Batistuta’s record tally for strikes in a calendar year and finally winning over a local public that had, harshly, doubted his commitment to his country.
Messi and Argentina would fall to Germany in the World Cup final and to Chile in the 2015 Copa final, but the latter brought an improved individual showing from Messi, who was clearly in better physical condition.
Had Higuain converted from a yard with the last kick of the game after Messi slalomed through the Roja defense, Messi and Argentina may well have returned from Chile with the title for which they have waited so long.
If 2016 is to end that wait, Messi will likely have to be the one to end it.
Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino took up the Argentina post following Sabella’s decision to step down after the World Cup.
Fresh off the back of an ultimately disappointing stint with Barcelona, the Rosario native’s appointment was something of a no-brainer for the Argentinian Football Association (AFA).
Desperate to install a coach who would coax the best out of Messi, the two had spent a year together in Catalonia and had forged a good relationship.
Moreover, Martino is a Newell’s Old Boys legend who appeared more than 500 times for Messi’s boyhood club and is listed by Messi’s father Jorge as his favorite player.
Martino is another in an increasingly long line of Marcelo Bielsa disciples, though certainly more pragmatic than some of his fellow Bielsan alumni. After finding success in Paraguayan domestic football, he was handed the national team job in 2006.
He promptly steered la Albirroja to the World Cup in South Africa, finishing joint second with, ironically, Bielsa’s Chile in CONMEBOL qualification before securing Paraguay’s best-ever finish as his side were narrowly beaten by eventual winners Spain in the quarterfinals.
A year later, he dragged an ageing Paraguay to the final of Copa America 2011 – without winning a single game at the tournament – before jumping ship to lead Newell’s to an impressive league title, prompting Barca’s interest.
Success Looks Like...
Lifting the Copa America. The fans, and this team, have waited long enough. The improved performances of Messi at major competitions has provided enough encouragement among the locals to believe that he can lead Martino’s men all the way to the promised land.
After two final defeats, and with Brazil focused on the Olympics, Argentina is considered favorites for the crown, though Martino believes it will be anything but a two-horse race.
"Copa America Centenario is much more than Brazil and Argentina," he said. "Recently we haven't been seeing the best version of Brazil. But Brazil's current struggles do not put us in a better place because other countries are playing at top level. Uruguay is right up there along with Chile and Colombia and Ecuador are at the same level so we should not just be thinking about Brazil."
Reigning champion Chile, however, is navigating a post-Jorge Sampaoli world, while Ecuador has slowed after flying out of the qualifying traps with four consecutive wins. Colombia earned just one win on its first four qualifiers, but is back on track after beating Bolivia in La Paz and cruising past Ecuador last time out.
Failure Looks Like...
Anything but victory. A place in the final would usually suffice, but after coming within touching distance in the last two years, it will have to be third time lucky for Argentina, and for Martino, who has now lost two Copa America finals as a coach.
Martino’s job appeared on the line after Argentina’s stuttering start to the long road to Russia 2018 and the knives will be out once again should his side fail to bring the title back from the United States, particularly if Messi fails to impress.
Argentina comes into the competition following an upturn in form, however. After failing to win in its first three World Cup qualifiers, Argentina has steadied the campaign with three consecutive victories, including wins in both Chile and Colombia.
Messi’s return from injury played a major part: Martino saw his side win just one of four qualifiers without Messi; Argentina has won two of two with the Barcelona star back in the side.