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Jack Flanagan introduces us to some of the less feted teams from Copa America 2016. We hope you’ve got some of the organic root beer left over!
This year’s edition of South America’s answer to the Euros, the Copa América, is a special one: a one-off celebration of the tournament’s 100-year anniversary, held just a year after the last edition of the tournament. The “Copa América Centenario” features an expanded format. Traditionally, 12 teams fight for the trophy, but this year there are 16, featuring 4 groups of 4. To achieve this, 6 teams have been selected from CONCACAF (the North and Central American footballing body), up from the usual 2. Held across the US over the course of June, the expanded format allows the inclusion of teams that otherwise would not have made the tournament. From a hipster’s perspective, this is exactly what the doctor ordered. In this guide, I’ll select the 4 most likely to upset the apple cart. Get your home-brewed ale ready…
Why? There’s something about Jamaica. Finalists in last year’s Gold Cup, cruelly denied by a Mexico side lucky to even be in the final, Jamaica surpassed everyone’s expectations. Beating Haiti by the solitary goal in the quarterfinals, Jamaica faced United States (who were on home turf) in the semis. You would’ve been crazy to suggest they had a chance, after the US’ 6-0 thumping of Cuba in the quarterfinals. But they went and beat them 2-1, entering half time already 2-0 up. US dreams were shattered, and Jamaica had solidified their place in Gold Cup folklore.
Key Individuals: What is especially interesting about the current Jamaica squad is that to the casual football fan, there is virtually no one in it that will make you raise your eyebrows. But, for the football hipster, their side is intriguing and full of underappreciated footballers. Giles Barnes is their central attacking threat, a creative midfielder highly rated as a teenager at Derby, but who never fulfilled his early promise. He now plies his trade with Houston Dynamo, where he has become somewhat of a sensation, scoring roughly 1 in 3. Equally, in Adrian Mariappa and Wes Morgan, the Jamaicans have two centre backs who are criminally underrated. In Wes Morgan in particular, Jamaica have a centre back who is fresh from a Premier League triumph with Leicester, in a season where he appeared as a leader of men and one of the best centre backs in the league.
How are their chances? Despite their recent plaudits, it is true to say that they have a tough group to contest. They will have to pip either Mexico or Uruguay to qualify for the knockout stages, which are 2 considerably more talented sides. However, if they manage to do that, and if the knockout draw is kind to them, who knows. With the same kind of team spirit that guided them through last year’s Gold Cup, anything can happen. Just ask Leicester!
Why? This is the ultimate hipster choice. Panama qualified along with Haiti in the playoffs for the tournament, beating Cuba 4-0. They are certainly beneficiaries of the expanded format, but another example of a side with an impressive team spirit, making up for their lack of star individuals with heart.
Panama lack goals in their team but counter this with a mean defence, best exemplified by their performance in last year’s Gold Cup. They conceded just 6 times over 5 games in the tournament, and actually went out of the tournament without losing a single game over 90 minutes. They were knocked out by Mexico in the semi-finals, losing 2-1 AET, which I’m sure Panama still have a lot to say about. Mexico’s two goals came from the foot of Guardado from the penalty spot, the first of which came in the seventh (!) minute of added time after the 90. Both penalty decisions were extremely questionable and Panama were the better side in that game. It was almost a Jamaica-Panama final last year, which says an awful lot about how far desire can get you competitively.
Key Individuals: Despite the lack of star names, Panama have a reliable side. Upfront, in Blas Pérez and Luis Tejada, they have strikers with a combined 79 goals for the national side, a figure just 10 higher than their combined age! Tejada and Pérez will no doubt be relied on for goals, but their experience will come in useful in what will likely be tight matches, given Panama’s stingy back line.
Experience is not something that Panama lack, incidentally. Their 23-man squad has 11 players aged at least 30, including both Tejada and Pérez but also their stalwart goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, fresh from an MLS title triumph last year with LA Galaxy. Despite this, they also possess some talented youngsters – the most promising of which being Harold Cummings, a centre-half who has already amassed 43 caps for his country at the tender age of 24.
How are their chances? The first challenge Panama have to face is their treacherous group, which features last year’s two finalists – Argentina and Chile. Negotiate that hazardous path and you would think that they will fancy their chances against anybody. Fortunately for them, their first matchup of the tournament is against Bolivia, who are a considerably weaker opponent. Beating Bolivia will give them 3 points and put some pressure on Argentina and Chile early on. With an early victory in the group, Panama can afford to shut up shop against Argentina and Chile and attempt to garner a point from each game – a tactic that suits them perfectly.
Why? If you’re going to keep an eye on one team, make it Costa Rica. Anyone who watched the World Cup in 2014 will know all about them. In a group that contained Uruguay, Italy and England, Costa Rica topped the group undefeated, beating Uruguay 3-1 and Italy 2-1 in the process. The dream didn’t stop there – they made it all the way to the quarterfinals after beating Greece on penalties in the round of 16. In the process, Costa Rica shook the world with committed, high-energy performances that showed us something – football is a team game, and if you have application and desire within your team, the sky really is the limit. Couple that with a bunch of technically talented footballers, and you have a supreme outfit on your hands. If anyone can upset the great powers of the American subcontinent, it is Costa Rica.
Key Individuals: The main attacking outlet for Costa Rica is Joel Campbell, who runs a marathon in each game for his country, and has the technical attributes to match it. Quick off the mark, an efficient dribbler and accurate finisher, Joel Campbell is everything you want from a forward. He also has a creative eye, thus possessing the ability to orchestrate as well as finish attacks for his country – an attribute perhaps perfected at his time with Arsenal, where he has impressed this season. Campbell provides the cutting edge to Costa Rica, and will leave defences across the tournament preoccupied.
Another technically gifted footballer is the midfielder and captain Bryan Ruíz, the side’s main creative outlet. Ruíz has an eye for the spectacular, and is capable of doing things with the ball most of his nation’s counterparts cannot. An efficient passer with an excellent first touch, he is certainly a good weapon to have in your armoury.
In terms of work rate, Costa Rica work exceptionally hard, and have a bunch of players who personify this – particularly Cristian Gamboa and Celso Borges, two powerhouses, and Marcos Ureña, who spends most of his time doing little else than running. A poor man’s Carlos Tévez perhaps…
How are their chances? If there is a “group of death” in this year’s Copa América, it is probably Costa Rica’s group. Their group also feautures Colombia, Paraguay and the United States, all of which are dangerous sides. Colombia will look to top the group, but the 2nd spot is a little bit of a free-for-all. You would be tempted to pick the US to finish 2nd, on home soil, but questions remain over their manager, Jürgen Klinsmann, since they have been out of form for some time. Now is clearly a good time to play them. Costa Rica’s progress could well rest upon the result of their opening fixture against Paraguay.
Why? So far in qualification for the 2018 World Cup, Ecuador have been in sizzling form, losing just 1 of their 6 qualifying games stretching back to last October, beating Argentina and Uruguay in the process. Like Costa Rica, Ecuador are an attractive mixture of work-rate and talent that should serve them well in this tournament.
Somewhat disappointing in last year’s Copa América, Ecuador finished 3rd in their group, finishing behind Bolivia who subsequently qualified for the knockout stages ahead of them. Ecuador will be looking to prove to themselves and others this time around that they are better than that, which, on paper, they are.
Key Individuals: Ecuador are a well-balanced side, not short of talented footballers nor heart. The likes of Juan Carlos Paredes, Jefferson Montero and Antonio Valencia, one of the few top-quality true wingers left in the game, will offer plenty of pace and width. Montero and Valencia both have the ability to change a game, and will provide service for Enner Valencia (no relation to Antonio), West Ham’s tireless no. 9 who has 14 goals in just 24 games for his country. Unlike many other nations, Ecuador also have other forwards to call on – Miller Bolaños in particular is an exciting player, with 6 goals in 12 games for Ecuador and a heap of goals domestically.
Ecuador’s side also isn’t short of strength and power. Christian Noboa, the midfield lynchpin, will provide the brunt of Ecuador’s ugly defensive work in the middle, allowing players like Valencia and Montero the creative freedom they thrive on.
How are their chances? Ecuador have benefitted from a kind draw, and they are in with a very real chance of progressing to the knockout stages. They have Brazil for company, but also Haiti and Peru in their group, two sides they will feel they can beat. Out of everyone I have discussed, Ecuador probably have the best chance of progressing. Topping the group isn’t even out of the realms of possibility, since Brazil have a lot to prove after their embarrassing exit from the World Cup in 2014, from which is not clear they have yet recovered from. If Ecuador seize the initiative in this group, they could upset Brazil and win it, providing them with a more favourable knockout draw, from which anything is possible.
Written by Jack Flanagan.