Copa America Centenario is 100 historic years in the making

A sparkling feature of South America’s biggest stars, Copa America is world football’s oldest continental competition, beginning a full 44 years before the first staging of the European Championships. Kicking off in 1916 as the Campeonato Sudamericano de Football, Copa has been the showcase for some of history’s most legendary players, from Omar Sivori to Pele to current stars like James Rodriguez and Lionel Messi. 

The idea for a continental tournament began with the Copa Centenario Revolucion de Mayo in 1910. A competition hosted by Argentina with Chile and Uruguay, to commemorate the centenary of the May Revolution. It wasn’t until six years later that an official tournament was established with Argentina hosting Chile and Uruguay again, adding in Brazil to round out the competitive field. Held between July 2nd and 17th, eventual world champions Uruguay took the spoils, holding Argentina to a 0-0 draw in the deciding match held in Avellaneda’s Estadio Racing Club.

The first Copa America also marks the first time in history a country fielded black players in an international tournament, as Uruguay lined up with Isabelino Gradin and Juan Delgado against Chile for their opener on July 2nd, despite vehement protests by the Chileans that their opponents were unfairly picking "Africans." 

As it unfolded, noting the success and popularity of the tournament, a member of Uruguay’s Football Association, Hector Rivadavia proposed the formation of CONMEBOL, the South American Football Confederation. July 9th marked the founding of the organization, with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay the original nation-member. Following 1916’s founding success, Uruguay then hosted the next iteration, retaining the trophy by again beating bitter rivals Argentina in the final.

A Brazilian flu outbreak in 1918 saw the tournament skip a year, with Brazil hosting in 1919, beating defending champs Uruguay 1-0 in a playoff match to lift the trophy for the first time. It was Chile’s turn to invite the other three countries in 1920, with Uruguay picking up their third win. 

1921 saw brand new CONMEBOL member Paraguay make their first appearance and Argentina win their first Copa America trophy, joining the ranks of Uruguay and Brazil. Over the next years, Argentina and Uruguay would trade blows and championships, until the 1930 World Cup threatened to derail the entire competition.

After Uruguay’s victory in that innaugural World Cup, the enmity with neighbors and bitter rivals Argentina turned into a political battle and Copa America went on hiatus until 1939.

Over the next decades, the tournament experiemented with frequency before settling on the current quadrennial format and the teams treated the it with varying seriousness, sometimes sending full-strength squads, sometimes not bothering with first-team players.

By 1993, tournament organizers had settled on the current 12-team format with all 10 CONMEBOL member nations participating along with two guest countries. The USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Japan have all taken part in the competition, with Mexico’s nine appearances the most of any non-CONMEBOL team.

2016’s competition is the 45th staging of the tournament in its 100-year past. 15-time champions Uruguay are the most successful in Copa America history, with Argentina’s 14 wins just in behind, and Brazil’s eight wins rounding out the top three. This centenary competition marks the first time Copa America has ever been held outside of South America. Even with the introduction of non-CONMEBOL teams, South American nations have won every tournament, although Mexico has reached the final twice.

Copa America Centenario kicks off on U.S. soil for the first time, bringing a century of soccer history to the States. Boasting some of soccer’s marquee names, the tournament promises to be yet another memorable edition to the annals of history.

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