From 11 to 28 September, Ecuador is hosting the seventh edition of the Copa America Femenina. The emergence of several new challengers at recent FIFA competitions means that the tournament promises to be one of the most open in the event's history.
Five-time continental champions Brazil are again major contenders, but no-one would be too surprised if the winner came from outside the usual suspects. Indeed, there will be several up-and-coming pretenders vying to clinch one of the two-and-a-half FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™ spots that are up for grabs.
Group A consists of hosts Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay and Peru, while Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile and Bolivia make up Group B. The top two from each group will go through to the finals, where they will all face off in a round-robin format. The champions and runners-up will automatically qualify for Canada, while the third-placed country will advance to a play-off against a CONCACAF side.
The winners will additionally earn a place at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, unless Brazil prevail, in which case the berth will go to the runners-up. The top four finishers will also gain entry to the 2015 Pan American Games. With all this and continental bragging rights on the line, FIFA.com previews what should be a thrilling tournament.
Battle of the rising powers
Colombia, the runners-up last time round, are the team to beat in Group A. Coach Felipe Taborda has a settled, seasoned set-up including no fewer than 15 players with experience on the world stage. Six members of the squad were in the team that finished fourth at the 2010 U-20 World Cup and subsequently featured at the 2011 World Cup. Their big star is 21-year-old creative midfielder Yoreli Rincon, who has shone throughout her fledgling career, including during stints in Sweden with Malmo and in the USA with the New Jersey Wildcats.
Also heavily fancied to progress are Venezuela, whose young side have enjoyed two stunning years under the stewardship of Panamanian tactician Kenneth Zseremeta. After winning the U-17 South American Youth Championship and reaching the final of the Bolivarian Games last year, earlier this year they took fourth place at the U-17 World Cup in Costa Rica and silver at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing. Attacker Deyna Castellanos, 15, was the top scorer at both events, sharing the gong with team-mate Gabriela Garcia in China.
Next in the reckoning come Uruguay, who finished third in 2010, and Ecuador. La Celeste coach Fabiana Manzolillo can call on five players involved in the 2012 U-17 World Cup, including notably the forward Yamila Badell, but the country has failed to kick on following that first appearance at the finals of a FIFA women's tournament.
After two consecutive fourth-place finishes in 1995 and 1998, the Ecuadorians have fallen out of contention in recent editions. Try telling that to Vanessa Arauz, though. The La Tri coach remains confident, stating, "Our goal is to qualify for the World Cup for the first time. The opening match will be key." The hosts will get their campaign underway against Peru, led by former Spanish player Marta Tejedor, who took on the challenge of returning the country's ladies to the upper crust of South American football in 2013 following four successful years in the Chile hot-seat.
Big guns with a twist
Considering their pedigree, Brazil are heavy favourites in Group B, having only once lost in the competition, albeit that defeat to Argentina in 2006 cost them the title. However, they go into the tournament missing the likes of five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta, Rosana and Debinha, who were not released by their clubs.
"Rather than talking about lifting the trophy, we have to think about qualifying for the World Cup first," according to much-travelled coach Vadao, who is preparing for his first matches in charge. Canada 2015 is considered a vital milestone prior to the Olympics in Rio.
For Argentina, the Copa America ushers in the reign of Ezequiel Nicosia, who has taken over from the legendary Jose Carlos Borrello. The Albiceleste squad includes four survivors from the 2007 World Cup, their last outing on the world stage, as well as eight players who featured at the 2012 U-20 World Cup. Leading the charge will be attacking duo Yael Oviedo, of Brazilian club Foz Cataratas, and Marianela Szymanowski, who plies her trade in Spain for Rayo Vallecano.
Paraguay and Chile look evenly poised. Julio Cesar Gomez has called up eight members of the squad from the recent U-20 World Cup in Canada, where La Albirroja fell at the first hurdle despite chalking up one victory in group action. Gomez is conscious of the need for patience: "We're making major inroads in the development of women's football," he stated during a FIFA Live Your Goals seminar held in Paraguay in June.
La Roja have stuttered since clinching third place last time round, but will be hoping to be buoyed by an eight-strong contingent from Colo-Colo, who are enjoying a superb streak of success. Nevertheless, the biggest star in Ronnie Radonich's squad is Chelsea goalkeeper Christiane Endler, one of five players called up who played in the U-20 World Cup on home turf back in 2008.
Last, and perhaps least likely to advance, Bolivia have always struggled to make an impact at this event, registering just two wins in 18 matches. To make matters worse, coach Marco Antonio Sandy – who represented the country at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ – will have to do without the goalscoring talents of his captain, Maite Zamorano, who is missing because of work commitments. Still, Sandy is not throwing in the towel. "The girls know exactly what they want and with the hard work we've put in to prepare, they can have a good tournament," he argued.