Copa cast list high on quality
© AFP

The Copa America Argentina 2011 will roar into life on Friday when the hosts meet Bolivia, bringing welcome relief to fans suffering withdrawal symptoms since the season’s end in Europe and other parts of the world. In recent months they have been entertained by some of the brightest stars in Latin American football, who will be reconvening in Argentina for what promises to be three and a half weeks of spectacular action.  

In terms of star quality few of the competing nations can boast quite the wealth of talent at Argentina’s disposal, particularly up front. Aside from Angel Di Maria and Carlos Tevez, the joint-leading scorer in the English Premier League last season with 20 goals, coach Sergio Batista can also call on the services of Lionel Messi. The winner of the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2010, Messi has enjoyed another extraordinary season, playing a major part in Barcelona’s league and UEFA Champions League double and top-scoring in the latter competition.

While Messi’s Albiceleste form is the subject of debate among Argentina fans, Batista is confident the player can replicate his scintillating club performances for his country. “Messi should be getting a different kind of recognition for everything he’s done for the team, though I think he’s going to earn that on the pitch now,” said the coach in the build-up to their opener against the Bolivians. “I think he’s going to have a great Copa America.”

Forwards of all shapes and sizes
The Argentinians do not have a monopoly on stellar talent, however. Take Colombia, whose own hopes of success are solidly founded on midfielder Fredy Guarin and Porto team-mate Radamel Falcao Garcia, the leading goalscorer in the 2010/11 UEFA Europa League. The duo were prime movers in the magnificent league, cup and Europa League treble Os Dragões secured last season, and will be central to Colombia’s challenge. “It’s impossible to overlook Falcao’s assets,” said Cafetero coach Hernan Gomez. “He’s a lethal and highly effective striker who can take the least little opportunity that comes his way.”

Uruguay have no reason to envy anyone with their formidable three-pronged strike force. While the South Africa 2010 semi-finalists will be looking to adidas Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan to lead the line with distinction once more, they are also expecting big things from Liverpool livewire Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who struck the small matter of 26 goals in Napoli’s brilliant run to third place in Serie A last term.

It’s impossible to overlook Falcao’s assets. He’s a lethal and highly effective striker who can take the least little opportunity that comes his way.
Colombia coach Hernan Gomez

Last year’s FIFA World Cup finals also brought encouraging performances from Chile and Paraguay. Among those on display for the Chileans in South Africa was Alexis Sanchez, whose stock has since risen further thanks to a stunning campaign for Udinese in Serie A. The diminutive 22-year-old forward struck 12 goals for the Friuli club and gave sterling support to league capocannonieri Antonio Di Natale. Now coached by Claudio Borghi, La Roja are looking to Sanchez to work the same kind of magic for them.

Meanwhile, Paraguay travel to Argentina with the core of the team that came within an ace of ousting eventual champions Spain in the quarter-finals at South Africa 2010. And like Chile’s Sanchez, Guaraní striker Lucas Barrios did his reputation no harm in the domestic season that followed the world finals, top-scoring for Borussia Dortmund with 16 goals as they claimed the Bundesliga crown.

Brazilian brilliance

Even though they are rebuilding under the watchful eye of Mano Menezes, who is preparing for his first major competition, Brazil are never short of stardust. While keeping faith with experienced hands such as Daniel Alves, Lucio, Robinho and Julio Cesar, Menezes has not been slow to usher in a new generation, spearheaded by the likes of Alexandre Pato, Paulo Henrique Ganso and the ever-more impressive Neymar.  

Fresh from his showstopping turn at the South American U-20 Championship earlier this year, Neymar then inspired his club to glory in the Sao Paulo state championship and the Copa Libertadores, ensuring himself a secure place in A Seleção in the process. Not bad for a 19-year-old, although Menezes has been calling for calm: “A Seleção doesn’t depend on Neymar as much as Santos do, and we’ve got some high-quality players who can share the responsibility. I have no doubts, though, that the Neymar we’ve been seeing for Santos is the one we’ll see for Brazil.”

There are a host of other names to watch out for among the teams less fancied to win the trophy. Although Mexico will not be sending a full-strength squad to Argentina due to their recent CONCACAF Gold Cup commitments, the presence of Giovani Dos Santos will ensure they are a threat. Venezuela have been making great strides in recent years thanks to standard-bearers such as Jose Salomon Rondon, the scorer of 14 goals in La Liga with Malaga in 2010/11. And providing Ecuador with a cutting edge going forward will be Manchester United winger Luis Antonio Valencia.  

With a cast list of such quality, the 2011 Copa America should make for quite a spectacle.