Latin America

Copa America is coming of age

Lionel Messi training Argentina Copa America
Lionel Messi will be the star attaraction of the Copa America in his native Argentina.
SpecialtoFoxSoccer JOEL RICHARDS
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Argentina has just beaten Peru 4-0. Two goals from Juan Roman Riquelme, a close-range finish from Javier Mascherano and a clever nutmeg from Leo Messi has just secured the passage through to the semifinals for Alfio Basile's side.

Leaving the stadium in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, is a man accompanied by two friends, both of whom are also decked out in the replica albiceleste strip but are not sporting the same painted faces. He releases a broad smile, and then with a delicious Caribbean accent he marvels out loud. "That was simply amazing, wasn't it?"

The Venezuelan supporter, head to toe in Argentine colors, was not alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of locals were there at the stadium to support Messi and company, desperate to see the star players in person.

Although switching allegiances was perhaps indicative of the 2007 Copa America hosts being primarily a baseball-loving nation, the deafening screams that went with every single touch of the ball from Leo Messi also told another story.

Argentines had traveled in their droves to support their side, but making up the numbers were the locals.

One of the problems for the Copa America, and in particular how it differentiates itself from the European Championship, is the travel.

Distances are vast, both within the host countries and between competing nations. For the very same reason, the final of the South American Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, is necessarily played over a home and away leg – expecting fans to be able to travel to a neutral venue is simply too optimistic.

As one of the organizers of this year's Copa America in Argentina admitted, fans coming from abroad are likely to need around $4,000 for the trip to see their team. Not everyone can afford that.

In top of the financial constraints on fans and the logistical problems in getting to games is the erratic timing of the Copa America, which in its history has been played every year, every two years, every three years and every four years.

Varying time zones also meant that games were often televised late at night abroad, missing out on viewers, and perhaps resulting in the tournament being overlooked in the past.

Perhaps these are just some of the reasons behind the Copa America not traditionally enjoying a higher profile outside South America.

Nonetheless, with the advent of 24-hour sports news channels, hours of live soccer from across the globe televised every weekend, not to mention blogs and Twitter, that may be changing.

With the upsurge in coverage, particularly of the European game, this tournament boasts a number of stars, many of whom are already household names after their performances with their respective clubs.

And with TV rights sold across the globe, and particularly the agreement reached with youtube to televise matches, the tournament will be seen by more soccer fans than ever before, and they have plenty to watch out for.

The host's number 10, Leo Messi, needs no introduction whatsoever. With a record-breaking 53 goals in one season for the European and Spanish champion Barcelona, together with 24 assists, Messi arrives as the undisputed best player in the world. His only outstanding debt, beyond continuing to win individual and club awards, is a title with the full national team.

Alongside Argentina as favorites are Brazil, who amongst their ranks have taken the pairing of Neymar and Paul Henrique Ganso. Fresh from inspiring Santos to winning the Copa Libertadores, they represent two of the most exciting talents in South America.

Uruguay boasts one of the most exciting attacking front three, with World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlán playing just off Liverpool striker Luis Suarez and the formidable Edinson Cavani fresh from a stunning season in Italy’s Serie A with Napoli for whom he hit 26 goals in 35 games.

Chile will look to Alexis Sanchez - one of the hottest properties on the market right now – for inspired performances, and Colombia will aim to deliver quality service to Radamel Falcao, who stood out as Porto won the Europa League, the striker contributing 17 goals in the competition alone.

And while the spotlight inevitably falls on the stars on show, for the teams competing there is also much at stake, especially amongst the chief contenders for the title. The two favorites, Argentina and Brazil, both brought in new coaches after the World Cup and this is their first major test.

Can Uruguay build on their fourth place in last year's World Cup and challenge for honors? And will Chile remain as committed to attacking football now that Claudio Borghi has replaced Marcelo Bielsa as coach?

All these stories will unravel as the tournament progresses. Just don't expect to see the home fans in any colors other than blue and white.

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