Copa America 2011
As the cream of the South American crop get set to do battle, skysports.com's Chris Burton casts an eye over the Copa America and its brightest stars
Last Updated: 01/07/11 2:01pm
Think South American football and you think of the golden flash of a Brazilian superstar, the mercurial talents of a diminutive Argentine playmaker or the madness of an eccentric Paraguayan goalkeeper.
Football in this part of the world is renowned for its colour, its flamboyance and its ability to produce the unexpected.
Throw all of those ingredients into one pot and you end up with the Copa America, a celebration of all that is good about South American football, its fans and the personalities that help to make the tournament unlike any other.
The 43rd instalment of this particular story takes place in Argentina over the course of the next month, with the cream of the 2011 crop hoping their adventure will carry them all to the way to the final in Buenos Aires on 24th July.
Twelve teams will set out on that journey, with six games separating them from continental glory.
Among the usual suspects will be two 'invitees', with it customary for outsiders to be offered the opportunity to upset the locals.
Mexico will have every intention of doing just that, with the newly-crowned CONCACAF Gold Cup champions aiming to land their second piece of major silverware in the space of one hectic summer.
Joining them in Argentina will be Costa Rica, who have stepped in to fill the void created by Japan's decision to withdraw from the tournament in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami which devastated the country in April.
All of those on show will be looking to wrestle the trophy away from Brazil - who have claimed back-to-back titles and have come out on top in four of the last five Copa Americas.
There is a feeling that the Samba stars could be there for the taking this time around, with their squad shorn of the glittering array of household names that have adorned their ranks in the recent past.
That could open the door to an Argentina, who have not tasted Copa glory since 1993, or a Uruguay to take the top prize.
Argentina have finished as runners-up to arch-rivals Brazil in each of the last two tournaments and will be desperate to go one better this time around, while Uruguay will arrive in buoyant mood following their fourth place finish at the 2010 World Cup.
It is, however, too early to be turning attention towards potential final showdowns and glorious ticker-tape celebrations, as the group stages will need to be successfully negotiated first.
Hosts Argentina are joined in Group A by Bolivia, Costa Rica and the much-fancied Colombians.
Group B sees Brazil pitched into combat alongside Paraguay, Venezuela and Ecuador, while Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Mexico make up Group C.
The top two in each group will progress to the quarter-final stage, where they will be joined by the two best-placed sides finishing third.
Ones to watch
The most talked-about player on the planet at the moment, Neymar's star has soared since making his Santos debut as a 17-year-old in March 2009. Europe's top clubs are currently falling over themselves in an effort to secure his signature, with it reported that the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea are prepared to part with around £40million in an effort to bring his mercurial talents on board. Santos, fresh from landing the Copa Libertadores, are confident they can keep the youngster in his homeland, but a star showing in Argentina would make that task all the more difficult.
Another South American causing quite a stir in the European transfer market is Chilean forward Sanchez. His current employers Udinese spotted his talent early and snapped him up back in 2006, before loaning him out to Colo Colo and River Plate. The £2.7million they shelled out to Cobreloa looks like being the steal of the century, with Barcelona piecing together a £45million package to take him to Spain as we speak.
Argentine playmakers have always captured the imagination, with countless heirs to Diego Maradona's throne having emerged down the years. Lionel Messi is unquestionably the man most capable of emulating the achievements of his countryman, but there are a number of ridiculously-talented 'No.10s' currently doing the rounds. Pastore fits seamlessly into that category, with the Palermo playmaker expected to catch the eye this summer and add a few more euros onto a price tag Manchester City could match during the transfer window.
It is easy to see why Santos are currently the stand-out club side in South America, with their ranks brimming with exciting young talent. Neymar may be the star of the show, but Ganso has emerged as his right-hand man. An attacking midfielder with breathtaking ability and a keen eye for goal, he could be another heading for European shores in the not too distant future. He is under contract at Santos until 2015, meaning he will not come cheap, but AC Milan are already preparing to make him their latest Brazilian recruit.
If Colombia are to justify their standing as dark horses in the 2011 Copa America, they will need their frontmen to fire on all cylinders. That means Falcao, who is likely to partner Wigan's Hugo Rodallega, must come to the party. A phenomenal strike rate at club level with Porto, which works out at better than a goal every other game, suggests he has the ability to cause defenders nightmares. He will take considerable heart from his efforts last season, as he helped Porto to domestic and European glory, but will need to make sure that his head is not turned by speculation suggesting he is to follow former club coach Andre Villas-Boas to Chelsea.