Lionel Messi is once again in the spotlight at the Copa America

Lionel Messi of Argentina kicks the ball while doing a drill during practice for a Copa America soccer match on June 19, 2024.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi kicks the ball while doing a drill during practice for a Copa America soccer match on June 19, 2024. | Photo credit: AP

For world champions Argentina, the expanded Copa América begins on Thursday, in what will almost certainly be Lionel Messi’s last appearance at the tournament in his quest for a second continental title.

The competition, which has been running for 108 years, is played in the United States. The host country is one of six teams from the CONCACAF region that will join the ten South American nations battling for a place in the final on July 14 in Miami.

While FIFA will be keeping a close eye on the organisation of the tournament two years before the World Cup, which will be co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, the tournament’s rich history and prestige mean that it is much more than just a “trial event”.

Argentina has won the Copa 15 times, but only once, in 2021, during the Messi era. Coach Lionel Scaloni has largely remained loyal to his World Cup-winning side, with veterans Angel Di Maria and Nicolas Otamendi likely making their last appearance at a major tournament.

Whether this is Messi’s farewell to elite international football remains to be seen – the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, who currently plays for Inter Miami in Major League Soccer, turns 37 four days after Thursday’s opening match in Atlanta against Canada and has not yet decided whether he will try to play in a record sixth World Cup.

“It’s great to set records and keep achieving things, but I’m not going to play in a World Cup just to be able to say I’ve made six,” Messi told ESPN last week.

“If I feel good and everything is ready for me, that’s fine, but I’m not just going to be there. It’s very difficult to imagine what can happen because it’s still two years away. I don’t have to commit now whether I’m going to be there or not,” he added.

What is certain, however, is that Messi, who has scheduled his training schedule to ensure he is in top shape for the tournament, would relish the chance to win a third consecutive major tournament with his country after so many frustrating years with his national team.

Tough opponent

After facing Canada, Argentina will face Chile in New Jersey before facing Peru in Miami to close out Group A. However, the team knows it will face tough opponents in the knockout stages, with rivals Brazil and Uruguay the two expected challengers for the title.

Brazil has struggled in the CONMEBOL qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup, winning only two of its first six matches. The country is currently in sixth place in the table after losses to Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina.

Dorival Junior’s Brazilian squad is missing several well-known names: Casemiro, Gabriel Jesus and Thiago Silva are missing, while Richarlison and Neymar are both absent due to injury.

The pressure will be on Real Madrid strikers Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo to translate their club form into success for the Seleção, while the debut of 17-year-old talent Endrick, who is set to join Real from Palmeiras next month, is accompanied by great excitement among the senior teams.

Uruguay, also a 15-time champion, have performed well under the guidance of 68-year-old Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa brought his trademark high-energy style to the team and raised high expectations with recent victories against Argentina and Brazil.

Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez will lead the attacking line, although Bielsa has the option of using the experienced Luis Suarez from the bench.

Colombia enter the tournament undefeated, having not suffered defeat in over two years. With Liverpool’s dynamic winger Luis Diaz a constant threat and James Rodriguez making a comeback at the end of his career, Nestor Lorenzo’s side cannot be underestimated.

The USA will be hoping to generate some much-needed excitement after losing their way since their respectable run to the round of 16 at the World Cup.

Coach Gregg Berhalter is under some pressure to show that he can put his team, which relies on the clever wing play of Christian Pulisic, in a position to compete with teams outside CONCACAF.

Mexico has been a frequent guest at the Copa in the past, reaching the final in 1993 and 2001. Nevertheless, the team seems to be far below its usual level, but as always, it can count on great support from the USA.

This is the second time that the Copa America will be held in the United States, following the Centenary Tournament in 2016. Although this represents a break with tradition, the presence of significant immigrant communities from all participating nations is likely to attract large crowds to the stadiums, which are predominantly used by NFL teams.

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